An astonishing real-life geopolitical thriller with a very run-of-the-mill historical explainer grafted to it like a remora, Madeleine Gavin’s documentary Beyond Utopia is so packed with high-stakes tension and nail-biting set-pieces that it’s fairly easy, and probably even ideal, to ignore its clunky structuring and expositional choices.
Beyond Utopia is primarily a three-pronged story about the perils of defecting from modern North Korea, as well as the nightmarish realities that make defecting such a necessity.
The Bottom Line
An intimate, real-life geopolitical thriller.
Seoul-based Pastor Seungeun Kim has spent decades putting his own life in jeopardy to coordinate and facilitate defections. He has a network of ethically compromised brokers in North Korea, China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, but he’s more than just a guy moving strategic pieces from a distance. Motivated in part by personal trauma, Pastor Kim’s own participation in these escapes has left him with broken bones and a rap sheet in several countries.
Part of Pastor Kim’s commitment to this cause has also involved documenting life beyond the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and the particular pathways to escape, contributing to the occasionally mind-boggling footage that Gavin has to work with.
Providing the movie’s breathless spin is the escape of the five-person Ro family — two parents, a grandmother and two small daughters — who have to cross rivers, climb mountains, dodge Communist authorities and wander through darkened rainforests in search of a freedom they aren’t all sure that they want. See, the “utopia” in the documentary’s title is actually North Korea, or at least the version of North Korea that the country’s leaders and propaganda machine have crafted for those trapped within its borders. The Ro parents may be determined to give their family a better life, but with 80+ years of indoctrination or immersion in North Korea’s heavily programmed education system, grandma and the two kids require a complete readjustment of their worldview.
Finally, there’s Soyeon Lee, who left her son in North Korea 10 years earlier when she defected and now dreams of a reunion, while at the same time worrying about the consequences for her entire family if anything goes wrong.
There’s an involvement between Gavin, her crew and Pastor Kim’s work that isn’t really made clear. They’re filming, but at the same time participating in a way that isn’t your typical “We’re following a mariachi team for a year” version of documentary production, and there’s no doubt that a documentary about the making of Beyond Utopia would be as gripping as Beyond Utopia.
Notes at the beginning of the film explain that the footage comes from a variety of sources — Hyun Seok Kim is the credited cinematographer — but it’s emphasized that the project contains no reenactments. It’s almost refreshing that the aesthetic for most of the footage is “Look, we’re doing the best we can,” shot in suboptimal lighting from disadvantaged positions, with glimpses of danger or atrocities that aren’t always instantly clear. I’m a great appreciator of Matthew Heineman’s (Retrograde) docs, but they tend to leave me wondering how he got his footage — and how he got his footage so darned pretty. With Beyond Utopia, the footage looks like exactly what it is: an effort to record information first and make cinema second.
However they did it, the immediacy is remarkable, especially in the sequences with the escaping family, which manage to be harrowing and fraught one moment and sweetly intimate and sad the next. The parts that have the elements of an espionage adventure will keep viewers on the edge of their seats, but I was most impressed just watching the grandmother and children processing their first exposure to a world outside of the North Korean bubble — reactions that range from unabashed glee to sheer terror to understandable wariness.
The scenes with Lee are less exciting, on a visceral level. She’s mostly answering ominous phone calls. But there’s so much internal conflict that plays out on her face every time she processes new information that her storyline proves equally absorbing, although the intercutting between Lee and the escaping family never fully feels aligned when it comes to pacing.
Pastor Kim is the documentary’s unifying force, the sort of hero you can imagine Hollywood making a movie about and then casting Mark Wahlberg. He’s so interesting on so many levels that I wish the documentary had delved into a few more of those levels, from the origins of his network of brokers to his own North Korean wife.
Instead, the decision was made to ensure that audiences were given a very, very basic “Why North Korea Is Bad” documentary primer that Gavin tries, with mixed results, to weave throughout Beyond Utopia in a way that doesn’t drain the drama from the primary source narratives. The basic history, narrated with little affect by Gavin herself, is dry and lifeless. Several American experts of different kinds give limited background and insight that aren’t bad, but definitely don’t feel like a part of this specific documentary.
Much better are the stories and recollections shared by defector and author Hyeonseo Lee, whose experiences growing up in a totalitarian regime better illustrate the desperation to leave than any rudimentary details supplied by somebody who just reads intelligence briefings. Lee is personable and even — in a documentary that tends toward darkness and solemnity — funny at times.
Mostly, this is the side of Beyond Utopia that nobody will remember, merely functioning to enhance the parts people are sure to remember vividly, probably through next year’s awards season.