There are few places on the planet as oppressive and secretive as North Korea. It’s a place where its citizens are ruled by fear and brainwashed into believing that their tyrannical leaders are god-like figures. For some, survival is an arduous challenge faced each day. It’s therefore not surprising that so many attempt to defect from their homes in the hopes of reaching somewhere safe. However, the journey can be just as dangerous as staying where, if caught, the punishment is severe.
This is the eye-opening and frequently harrowing reality presented to audiences in Madeleine Gavin’s documentary Beyond Utopia, in which viewers follow desperate families seeking better lives. These include a mother eager to be reunited with the child she left behind when she was forced to leave the country, alongside a family of five who make the perilous journey to freedom. Aiding them is minister and activist Pastor Sung-eun Kim, who has created an underground railroad of contacts and brokers to get his clients out of the reach of North Korea’s regime and their communist allies in a route that takes them through China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. It’s a constantly suspenseful and frightening ordeal where the threat of death is a very real possibility.
Scenes of families crouching in the darkness of a jungle waiting for the sound of barking dogs to pass in the distance would make for a heart-pounding scene in most thrillers, but it’s the very real footage captured from the film crew and family that drive home the reality of their situation. Likewise, phone calls with tearful loved ones, and a sobering sequence where the group sing together, only further reinforce the immense emotional toll that these people and their relatives are forced to endure.
Interspersed between the defectors’ experiences are interviews with others who left North Korea years ago, and who share harsh truths about what living there is like. They speak openly about seeing bodies in the streets, horrific scenes witnessed in concentration camps and the ridiculous standards that the citizens are expected to live by.
Throughout Beyond Utopia, Gavin gives audiences chilling insights into the horrific happenings behind North Korea’s well-guarded borders in what is a must-watch documentary.
Beyond Utopia is released in select cinemas on 27th October 2023.
Watch the trailer for Beyond Utopia here: