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Film review: Beyond Utopia

27 October 2023

Stephen Brown reviews a tale of two Koreas

Pastor Kim

Pastor Kim

IMAGINE a place believed so paradisaical that it accords with the title of a new documentary: Beyond Utopia (Cert. 15). Then, apply this to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), with its appalling record of human-rights atrocities. A defector to South Korea describes the horrors befalling an impoverished and cowed people. From him and other sources (including secret footage of torture and beatings), we learn of “banishments”, prison camps, and starvation.

“When I was young,” he says, “we prayed to our Father and Leader Kim Il-Sung before breakfast every morning. We had never heard of a book called the Bible, and, if anyone was caught with one, they’d receive the worst punishment imaginable.”

This is the context in which we meet Pastor Seungem Kim of Caleb Mission Church, a small religious community in South Korea. His son is killed by North Koreans. His wife vows that they will devote themselves to saving many more defectors; so far, more than 1000 people. Quoting John 12.24, the pastor sees their son in Christian terms. A grain of wheat, by dying, brings forth much fruit.

The film has several strands. The director, Madeleine Gavin, doesn’t use re-enacted scenes: hidden cameras, often shooting in low light, chronicle the misery, despair, and sheer bravery of escapees. We witness the Roh family, fearing arrest, taking the dangerous journey to freedom by crossing the Mekong River into Thailand. There is a touch of Exodus (even Schindler’s List) about this. The pastor himself, though leading them, cannot — like Moses — enter the promised land.

Hyeonseo Lee, another defector, and the author of The Girl With Seven Names, says: “We never learned much about the outside world.” Compared with everywhere else, this was Utopia, and conformity was paramount; otherwise, death threatened. False consciousness is rampant, bred by believing the divine status of the DPRK’s founder and his son, the circumstances of whose birth are remarkably similar to our Lord’s nativity.

A commentator says that the North Korean government has plagiarised the Bible. The Ten Principles that every citizen must memorise are almost identical with the Decalogue. Rather than a springboard for freedom, this creed subjugates the populace. The Roh grandmother is grief-stricken, feeling that she is blaspheming by defecting.

The film also follows Soyeon, who fled North Korea, desperate about her son, arrested after crossing into China. She says that, if returned to the DPRK, he will be beaten endlessly, forcing him to say that South Korea was his destination. If he makes the confession that they want, he will be sent to a concentration camp.

Each of the above situations could make a strong tale by itself. The lack of visual consistency, due to a variety of source material, gives a certain authenticity to the documentary. As for “balance”, there isn’t a good word uttered about the North Korean regime; but that would be like mentioning that Mussolini made the trains punctual. No doubt, the DPRK would say that the film was as much propaganda as their state-run television programmes. It would be harder to rebut, however, the gently shining goodness of Seungem Kim, whose conduct epitomises the very best elements of Thomas More’s original vision of Utopia.

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