Beyond Utopia |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Madeleine Gavin, US, 2023, 115 mins

Cast: Sungeun Kim, So-yeon Lee, Hyeonseo Lee

Review by Ben Thomas

Beyond Utopia, directed by Madeleine Gavin, documents the plight of North Korean defectors and the worsening situation of human rights under Kim Jong-Un’s regime.

The film is tense, using hidden cameras to capture the journey of one family from North Korea, through China, Vietnam and Laos, and into the safe haven of non-communist Thailand. The film is compassionate and hopeful, as we watch the sacrificial Seoul-based Pastor Seungeun Kim organise the safe passage of the family, but it never allows the viewer to relax into a simple survival story: we are always led to think of those who do not or cannot make it.

Beyond Utopia follows two key situations: one involving the Ro family (two parents, a grandmother and two young daughters) and the other involving Soyeon Lee and her son, who she left in North Korea when she defected 10 years earlier. Our main anchor points are well-known defector Hyeonseo Lee and Pastor Kim, who both provide context for the dire situation in North Korea and the dangers of leaving the country.

The film provides a quick and effective history of the region that is detailed enough without hindering the main thrust of the documentary. The juxtaposition of the two stories, one hopeful and one devastating, is sobering. Even as the Ro family are escaping, we are reminded of the many others who are being repatriated, dying in labour camps or have never had the opportunity to leave in the first place. We also learn of the deep indoctrination of North Korean citizens, as even after being led to safety the youngest and oldest of the Ro family still share their affinity towards Kim Jong-Un and the regime.

Pastor Kim is the irrepressible heartbeat of the film. His Christian beliefs inform his determination to fight for the free will and human rights of all North Koreans. He has a deep knowledge of the mechanisms of escape from North Korea, the logistics are complicated but must be flawless. After three surgeries, including one that lasted nine and a half hours to repair a broken neck injured during an escape, his body is slowing but the work continues.

Beyond Utopia concludes by reminding you of the ongoing situation and the need for more attention and practical help. The film is about exposure, but also ultimately about changing the situation. The conclusion is a call to action: for more to join the fight for freedom. But it is also a sombre ending. The film parts as Covid hits and Pastor Kim, still getting as many as a dozen calls on some days, is simply unable to conduct the same work due to the restrictions of movement. In many ways, the situation is bleaker than at the beginning.