‘Beyond Utopia’ Review: A Badass Pastor Smuggles North Koreans to Freedom in Secret Sundance Doc

Sundance: Madeleine Gavin's documentary is often messy and unfocused, but thrilling footage of North Korean defectors fleeing the country covers a multitude of sins.
"Beyond Utopia"
"Beyond Utopia"

Nobody who runs into Pastor Seungeun Kim would ever suspect that he was one of the world’s top covert geopolitical operatives. The soft-spoken Korean man — whose wife’s first impression of him was that he looked like Kim Jong-il because of his large belly — seems like he has more in common with a dorky dad from a GEICO commercial than Jack Ryan. But don’t be fooled by appearances: Pastor Kim is a straight-up badass. Over the past decade, he’s helped over 1,000 North Koreans escape to freedom — a jaw-droppingly impressive feat that should make every single person who watches “Beyond Utopia” question what they’ve done with their lives. If you have a family member looking to escape Kim Jong-un’s oppressive regime, he’s the guy you call.

Using his Rolodex of brokers, mercenaries, corrupt cops, and safehouses, he operates a pipeline that transports North Korean defectors to Thailand via a harrowing journey through China, Vietnam, and Laos. “Beyond Utopia,” Madeleine Gavin’s last-minute addition to the Sundance lineup, follows Kim as he takes on a challenge that’s harrowing even by his standards: transporting an entire family, including preschool-aged kids and an elderly grandmother, out of North Korea without a single casualty. It’s a feat of human ingenuity and perseverance that has to be seen to be believed, and even then you still might not be convinced it’s real.

It’s no secret what goes on in North Korea, but it can be easy for Westerners to forget just how awful the country’s regime actually is. Everyone knows about the creepy propaganda and the starving children, but the country’s isolated nature generally keeps it out of the news unless there are rumors of a missile launch. Our attention is usually elsewhere because other nefarious actors on the world stage do a lot more to keep themselves in the headlines. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine made Vladimir Putin’s sins impossible to ignore, and American companies do so much business in China that we inevitably hear more about the CCP’s Uyghur genocide than Kim Jong-un’s atrocities.

But anyone who needs to brush up on the evils that take place in North Korea will get a refresher within minutes of watching “Beyond Utopia.” Citizens are forced to live in unimaginable levels of poverty — many survive on the equivalent of $2 a month — so that all of the country’s resources can be invested in its military. That military works to keep Kim Jong-un in power at all costs and takes particular aim at anyone who tries to flee the country. Police and military officials are encouraged to be merciless towards anyone seeking a better life, and are rewarded with extra vacation time for any would-be defector that they murder.

That makes Pastor Kim’s job particularly hard, but he’s been able to find enough cracks in the system to offer his clients a glimmer of hope. He works with a network of brokers in North Korea who will connect citizens to the outside world for the right price. Very few geographical areas even have cellular service, and when someone figures out how to make a call, it’s usually being monitored. So he guides families through an elaborate communication process that involves sending screenshots of handwritten letters through a web of brokers with illegal cell phones. It can take months to exchange the equivalent of a few text messages, but people will do whatever it takes for a chance at freedom.

Once contact is established, it’s time to start making travel plans. While South Korea is the desired destination for most defectors, crossing the landmine-filled demilitarized zone is impossible. So North Korean escapees have to reach Thailand first, which requires trekking through China, Vietnam, and Laos, all of which have repatriation deals in place with North Korea. And sometimes that’s the best-case scenario, as North Korean travelers are often sold into sex slavery or to organ harvesters along the way. Pastor Kim is very clear about the risks the journey entails, but the Roh family jumps at the opportunity without hesitation.

What follows is an unprecedented look inside one of the most dangerous journeys on the planet. Kim uses a fleet of vans, planes, and boats to smuggle the family from safehouse to safehouse, but they still have to tackle some particularly treacherous stretches on foot. It seems unfathomable that anyone would ever consider letting a filmmaker follow them through something like this, and even more improbable that the footage would turn out this thrilling.

Still, “Beyond Utopia” often feels like a missed opportunity, as sloppy editing choices derail the film from becoming the kind of instant classic that it probably should have been. Despite the fact that Pastor Kim’s escape mission is a real-life geopolitical thriller that could have been ripped from a Tom Clancy novel, Gavin never seems comfortable allowing her documentary to unfold like one. Rather than let one of these incredible missions unfold in a linear fashion, she cuts away to a talking head interview about an unrelated topic whenever the tension starts to build. There are a few moments when it feels like the film is about to transcend the typical documentary formula and evolve into something much bigger, only to immediately pull back and show some generic commentary about life in North Korea. The film never fully commits to being a pure North Korean escape documentary, and its weakest moments come when it tries to be a general interest film about North Korea that happens to feature escape footage.

But at a certain point there’s no reason to split hairs — because 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.

Grade: B

“Beyond Utopia” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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