'Beyond Utopia' invokes the highest bar of "how did they even make this?" astonishment that only follows remarkable movies. Piercing together a variety of footage - shaky blurred phone footage filmed in the dark of the night, archival footage from hidden cameras in North Korea, hushed phone calls, sit-down interviews, and more – the film is a patchwork delicately crafted by filmmaker Madeleine Gavin.
The film follows Pastor Kim – perhaps one of the most courageous men alive, a North Korean defector who has since leaving himself helped more than a thousand people escape over the past decade. Under his smiling and warm demeanour is a (self-described) man who's extremely physically bruised and broken, having broken numerous bones - including his neck - while helping defectors escape.
Expanding from Pastor Kim, the film follows two of his connections: the Ro family and Soyeon Lee. The first is a family of five, including an 80-year-old grandma and two young children who desperately left North Korea without a plan after hearing they would soon be banished for having family members previously defect. The second, Mrs Lee, is a defector who hopes to bring over her 17-year-old son to South Korea.
Their stories intertwine to form a harrowing and suspenseful journey into the livelihood of North Korean defectors and their dreams and hopes. The Ros wandered around Changbai Mountain for five days without any direction post-crossing from North Korea to China until they came upon a farmer who, in turn, connected them with Pastor Kim. A desperate video of the family begging Pastor Kim to rescue them, recorded by a broker, begins their long and dangerous journey organised by Pastor Kim through China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and finally, South Korea.
Soyeon Lee's story is heartbreaking and emphatically presented with gorgeous animation recounting her memory of last seeing her son years prior when he was a small child. With a sense of crumbling hope throughout the film, as his escape grows increasingly unlikely and information from North Korea is relayed to her in increasingly curt and short calls, her story really brought tears to my eyes.
I was surprised to find out after watching the film that it was initially intended to be a biopic of Hyeonseo Lee, the author of 'The Girl With Seven Names', a brilliant memoir I remember reading during my childhood that has left an impact on me to this day. Lee provides context and personal recounts in sit-down interviews throughout the film. Still, 'Beyond Utopia' is essentially the story of Pastor Kim, the Ro family and Soyeon Lee. Madeleine Gavin highlighted this shift of main documentary subject(s) to be an organic morph during pre-production as she and the crew were introduced to Pastor Kim. This attitude of organically following the story's heart and digging deeper features prominently throughout the film, splicing spur-of-the-moment footage in dangerous moments with grainy cellphone footage from the over 50 brokers who helped the Ro family escape.
A desperate video of the family begging Pastor Kim to rescue them, recorded by a broker, begins their long and dangerous journey organised by Pastor Kim through China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and finally, South Korea.
The film's most impressive aspect is undoubtedly the edit by director Madeleine Gavin, which was clearly a mammoth task - even described by her as the most challenging film she has worked on. I've been fascinated by documentary film editing in recent months, which is so complex and challenging with the unpredictable and immense nature of the footage. Also serving as director, Gavin is simply masterful in balancing the years of footage and multiple stories to form the final cut, and audiences are immersed in the authentic stories she has presented. The crew of DOP Kim Hyunseok and sound recordist Daewon Choi have done fantastic and brave work following the subjects through their arduous journey, including crossing the border into Laos through the jungle.
'Beyond Utopia' is a documentary that digs into your mind and heart centred around some of the world's most heartbreaking realities.