I had any idea of how bad things are in North Korea, but the testimonies of these poor people horrified me. What the North Korean government does to it own people angers me and sickens me at the same time.
I hope one day for a unified Korea, and that the North Korean leaders be tried for crimes against humanity.
I was about the only person I know who wasn't laughing when Kim Jong-il died. However, I was too worried about the fate of his country and his people. To my knowledge, no country in the world has ever had a government like North Korea's, and I think the average American thinks far too little about that. It was easy to laugh at Kim Jong-il, Gods know, and Gods know I've done some of the laughing myself. But the whole thing is very uncertain. The current ruler of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, will probably be turning twenty-eight in a week, which is awfully young for the ruler of the country with the fourth-largest military in the world. An unknown number of people are in political prisons. Gulags, not to put to fine a point on it. And even more are starving. North Korea is a deeply troubled little country, and I'm inclined to doubt that the death of one loony is going to make much a difference on the subject, so I don't laugh much.
The people interviewed here are probably ill-inclined to laugh themselves. They are survivors, for the most part, of North Korea's gulag system. All of them are escapees--there is no such thing as normal emigration out of North Korea now. Most of them went through China, because the demilitarized zone with South Korea is too heavily guarded. One, knowing his family would probably be split up if they went through China, sailed south in a small boat in foggy seas past the North Korean navy. Which turned out to be sail-powered, because they didn't have any fuel. One of the women was sold into sexual slavery in China; another was carried across the border while in a coma, because medical treatment was actually better in China. One man talks of being tortured and of desperately trying to preserve his hands, because he was a concert pianist. There are tales of starvation. One man tells of his escape from the camp which almost certainly required the death of his only friend.
The problem, loosely, is the interpretative dance. You see how that's a jarring transition? Now imagine that you're being told the rules of the camps--which basically all end with "will be punished immediately by death by firing squad"--and some woman in the uniform of a North Korean policewoman is writhing about on the floor. The feel I got was that director N. C. Heikin, apparently herself a dancer, didn't want to do a mere "talking heads" documentary. And there isn't a lot of footage and such of the camps. This is ongoing, and Kim Jong-il wasn't exactly letting people take pictures and publish them worldwide. There are satellite images of the camps, and one of the people interviewed has done drawings, but most of what you have is people talking. And so in order to make it "interesting," she filmed the people at odd angles, so we only got eyes and mouths. To make us really feel what was going on, interpretive dance. And it doesn't work.
What's being said is compelling enough. There is a small amount of background given, including clips from those ridiculous giant production numbers the North Korean government forces the people into and a couple of truly bizarre propaganda films. By and large, though, this is a handful of deeply personal stories which paint a picture of a failing country. One woman talks of being forced to sing about spreading the bountiful rice while starving to death. A man talks about how the military itself was starving, about how they planted over their basketball courts and soccer fields with beans. And when North Korea asked for humanitarian aid after the fall of the Soviet Union, it's estimated that at least thirty percent and as much as seventy percent was diverted to the country's elite. All things considered, it probably won't be long until the North Korean elite are themselves starving, but they weren't at the time and anyway they weren't that much of the population.
It was easy to make fun of Kim Jong-il, given he was a tiny little man with enormous hair and the kind of sunglasses you used to see on [i]Coffee Talk[/i]. How do you take him seriously after the stories about how he used to, before people wised up and stopped taking the invitations, invite people he admired to come visit him in North Korea and then not let them leave? And his father just looked so [i]nice[/i]. And yet somehow, they were the world's only Communist monarchist theocracy, based on the worship of Kim Il-sung as the Sun God. (Technically, he's not officially dead yet; he's Eternal President of North Korea.) It's a horrible totalitarian dictatorship, but because we know so little about it, it's easy to make fun of it. All we see is the laughable figurehead--and we've already started making fun of Kim Jong-un's weight. Though I suppose "big bones" isn't enough of an explanation given how much of the country is starving to death. It's just that I don't think we think about that aspect of things at all, and we should.
- Interviews with North Korean defectors become repetitive; aside from the few unique personal stories of their escape or family history, the interviews all express the exact same messages/emotions, just stated in different words
- History was covered in a bit too much brevity
- The interjection of modern dance scenes set to sorrowful music, as well as montages of defectors' faces, is too frequent; they becomes tiresome, almost cheesy, and come across as if they're added only to draw out the length of the film
Ultimately, there just isn't enough content to fill the 1 hr 15 min duration of the film without excessive repetition, montages, and dance scenes. Cut to 1 hr, and this would be a much more effective film.