Pastor Seungeun Kim is a soft-spoken Korean man who claims to be a friend of Kim Jong-il due to his large belly in a GEICO commercial. This is an astonishing achievement that should make every person who watches "Beyond Utopia" question what they've done with their lives.
Madeleine Gavin's last-minute addition to the Sundance lineup follows Kim as he undertakes a challenging task of rescuing a whole family, including preschool children and an elderly grandmother, out of North Korea without a single casualty. It's a feat of human inventiveness and perseverance that must be experienced to be believed.
It's no secret what's going on in North Korea, but it's easy for Westerners to forget how terrible the country's regime is. Everyone knows about the gruesome propaganda and the starving children, but the country's isolated nature generally keeps it out of the news unless there are rumors of a missile launch. Other world actors do a lot more to keep themselves in the headlines, such as Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
But anyone who wants to know more about North Korea's evils will get a refresher as soon as you watch "Beyond Utopia." Citizens are forced to live in unbelievable poverty, many of whom survive on the equivalent of $2 a month, so that all of the country's resources may be invested in its military, which takes particular aim at anyone who seeks to flee the country. Police and military officers are encouraged to be brutal in their actions, and are given extra vacation time for any prospective defector that they
Pastor Kim has to face a difficult task in finding enough weaknesses in the system to offer his clients a glimpse of hope. Very few geographical areas have cellular service, and when someone learns how to make a call, it's usually being monitored. It can take months to exchange the equivalent of a few text messages.
Once contact with North Korea has been established, it's time to begin planning travel. While South Korea is the preferred destination for most defectors, crossing the landmine-filled demilitarized zone is impossible. So North Korean escapees have to go first through China, Vietnam, and Laos, all of which have repatriation agreements with North Korea. Sometimes that's the best-case scenario, as North Korean travelers are often sold into sex slavery or organ harvesters along the way.
Kim transports the family from safehouse to safehouse on foot, but they still have to tackle some particularly difficult sections on foot. It's highly unlikely that anyone would ever allow a filmmaker to document something like this.
Despite the fact that Pastor Kim's escape mission is a real-life geopolitical thriller that might have been adapted from a Tom Clancy novel, Gavin refuses to allow her documentary to unfold in a linear fashion whenever the tension starts to build. There are a few moments when the film seems to be about to become a general interest documentary about North Korea that happens to include escape footage.
'Beyond Utopia' is filled with the sort of holy shithow did they get this for the first time, and we must cherish every one of them.
“Beyond Utopia” was the first film to be broadcast in the United States at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently in the works in the United States.