In this astonishing, edge-of-the-seat chronicle, the camera follows audacious, high-risk quests to escape from North Korea, and the man who plans them, with a rare intimacy and emotional power.
Screened as part of NZIFF 2023
In its third generation of dynastic dictatorship, North Korea remains one of the most impoverished, draconian, caged corners of the world. Across the border in Seoul, the unlikeliest of espionage action heroes, a middle-aged pastor called Sengeun Kim, has devoted his life to the near impossible: getting defectors out. Beyond Utopia chronicles first-hand the knife-edge attempts he plans and leads.
A mother who has escaped seeks to facilitate the exit of a son she has not seen for a decade. A family of five, with grandma and young daughters, embarks on a jaw-dropping journey, over barbed wire, past watchtowers, crossing multiple rivers and mountain ranges, involving various “brokers” with various motives. To make it happen, Pastor Kim risks his own life time after time, motivated by the story of his North Korean wife and the loss of a son.
The personal stories of resettled defectors, who recall the paradise narratives they were fed as children, together with commentary from experts, wraps a context around proceedings. But the escapes themselves are the engine and the heart – missions as intimate as they are intense, the camera right alongside the defectors on their ineffably perilous, astonishing pursuit of freedom. – Toby Manhire
“When life hands you an opportunity to watch footage like this, you don’t turn it down. From an 80-year-old woman scaling a jungle-covered mountain in the dead of night while military dogs bark in the background to a mother tearing up as she shows her daughter fruits and flowers for the first time, Beyond Utopia is filled with the kind of 'holy shit how did they get this?' footage that the documentary medium exists to preserve. Films like Beyond Utopia are the same as people like Pastor Kim – their existence is a miracle, and we need to cherish every one we get.” – Christian Zilko, IndieWire