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‘Beyond Utopia’ vividly depicts desperate escapes of North Korean defectors

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“Beyond Utopia” unveils the desperate escapes of North Korean defectors, hailed as this year’s most poignant and disturbing documentary. [Roadside Attractions]

The surge in North Korean defectors began in earnest in the mid-1990s. Even after their escape, they face serious human rights violations in their host countries. In China, they are considered illegal immigrants and are often forcibly repatriated to North Korea, where it is well known that they may face execution or forced labor by the North Korean authorities.

“Beyond Utopia,” a documentary that chronicles the harrowing escape of two North Korean families, is set to be released in over 600 theaters across the United States. This marks the first time a film about North Korean defectors has been distributed to such a wide audience. It has been heralded as one of the most poignant and shocking documentaries of the year.

The film represents the culmination of efforts by a team of filmmakers who risked everything to document the perilous journey of North Koreans seeking freedom. As the global community grapples with the issue of the human rights of forcibly repatriated North Koreans, the film challenges viewers to consider their role in the crisis.

“Beyond Utopia” shares the story of a mother striving to reunite with her son in South Korea, a family risking their lives to cross the border, and a pastor who goes to great lengths to ensure their safe escape.

The documentary features intense and heart-wrenching scenes, including a mother’s anguish as she communicates with her son only through phone calls arranged by a broker, the desperate pleas of young daughters on a video call before their border crossing, and the commitment of a pastor who meets the family at the Chinese border and stays with them until they reach safety in Thailand.

It also follows the ordeal of a woman whose son, after successfully defecting, is captured in China and sent back to North Korea, where he will face severe punishment. In a twist, the informant demanding a bribe for his release is revealed to be part of a North Korean ploy to ensnare both the mother and son.

The shocking and sorrowful narratives depicted in “Beyond Utopia,” captured in the real-life context of North Korean defection, leave viewers with a heavy heart. The film’s portrayal of the horrifying experiences of defectors is made all the more impactful by the actual footage of their attempts to flee.

The UNHCR, among others, recognizes North Korean defectors as refugees sur place and opposes their repatriation. The film also exposes the reprehensible actions of human traffickers and brokers who exploit the plight of these defectors, highlighting a grim facet of human nature.

BY JEONG KIM  [ckkim22@gmail.com]
The author is a film critic for the Korea Daily.

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