The controversial dictatorship of North Korea has been a popular subject for filmmakers, with many exploring different aspects of the country. Claude Lanzmann’s Napalm and Werner Herzog’s Into the Inferno delved into personal experiences and cultural beliefs in North Korea, while other documentaries like The Propaganda Game, The Lovers and the Despot, Liberation Day, and Assassins also shed light on the secretive nation. However, despite its comprehensive coverage on North Korea, this particular documentary fails to mention one of the most unusual events in recent history: the 2018 summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, two leaders who had previously exchanged threats of “fire and fury”.
Beyond Utopia is a nail-bitingly tense account of the network of safe houses and “underground railroads” used by North Korean defectors to get to freedom, run by the South Korean human rights activist and Christian cleric Pastor Kim Sung-eun. (There is real escape footage here.) Despite the well-attested ideological iron grip exerted in North Korea (no one in this film uses the pro-regime term DPRK or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), there are in fact traffickers and brokers both there and in China who for a price are prepared to get people out.
50% of the movie focuses on the emotional examination of a North Korean family being secretly transported across the border into China by Pastor Kim’s group. Upon arrival, they are assisted by Kim’s associates in disguising themselves as South Korean tourists before embarking on a perilous journey through Vietnam and Laos (both communist countries with potential consequences of being deported back to North Korea) and ultimately reaching safety in Thailand. The scene of the elderly North Korean grandmother, who still holds deep respect for the Pyongyang regime, discovering a flat-screen television and mistaking it for a blackboard, is both heart-wrenching and comical.
The movie’s second plot centers around a North Korean woman who fled her country, but her son was caught and sent back for punishment after attempting to escape to China. She is told by sources that he can be freed again if she pays more bribes. However, there is suspicion that this could be part of a North Korean scheme (in which her son and elderly mother were coerced) to trick her into returning and facing a public trial.
The documentary would benefit from including more details. For instance, what is the exact amount that the traffickers charge? Where does the money originate from? Is it collected by the defectors’ loved ones in South Korea? Or does Pastor Kim collect donations for an ongoing fund? Regardless, it is an exceptional documentary.