The Defector: Escape from North Korea (2012)

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Cast: , ,
Director: Ann Shin
Country: Canada
Genre: Documentary
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Notes: The Defector: Escape from North Korea will be screening at 2013 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. The film will also be having its broadcast debut on TVO on June 26th. For more information on the film visit thedefectormovie.com.

The Defector: Escape from North Korea is a harrowing documentary about a broker named Dragon attempting to ferry people out of North Korea (though they have already escaped to China) through China to Laos and then to Thailand so they can request refugee or asylum in other countries that will not repatriate them to North Korea.   The two defectors that are focused on, Sook-ja and Yong-hee, both want to make it to South Korea and start new lives there.  They are followed by the director, Ann Shin and her crew using mainly hidden cameras.

The Defector: Escape from North Korea is a harrowing documentary about a broker named Dragon attempting to ferry people out of North Korea…

First, they contacted Dragon after spending several years in China as fugitives.  The Chinese government send North Korean defectors right back to North Korea.  One, Sook-ja, was sold to a Chinese man to be his wife and the other had been there for eight years searching for her sister who had disappeared after her own defection.  She fears she was sold or sent back to North Korea.

They contacted Dragon who professionally gets people from China to Thailand…for a price.  Dragon is himself a defector and sees himself as a patriot who is helping people and in many ways he is.  However at a critical point, when the group (which numbers five, but the other three are not named of focused on) is about 1/3 of the way through their journey in Xi’an, Dragon fears he will be captured so he decides not to go any further with the group.  He holds a meeting telling the defectors to make sure they don’t tell any officials who got them out of China if they should be caught.  Shin is worried that Dragon is sounding more concerned about himself than his defectors.  The group is angry and confused when he tells them he is not continuing with them and gives them somewhat vague instructions and sticks them in a van with a Chinese driver who does not know he is transporting North Korean defectors.

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The film crew has to leave the group at Kunming due to the danger of crossing the Laos border illegally and having a film crew go through too would endanger them even more.  So the crew is to meet back up with them in Thailand after the defectors have trekked through the Laotian jungle.  Will they make it?  That’s part of the excitement of the film.

Shin has made a film in the best tradition of investigative reporting, the kind that used to be featured on television news magazine shows like 20/20 and Dateline.  She chooses two people, seemingly ones she got to know the best during their time together, to focus on so as not to distract with too many narratives.  She risked arrest and jail the same as the defectors, as to the Chinese officials they would have looked like accomplices.  She and her crew risked a lot to get this story so the world could see just how hard it is to get out of North Korea, a country many know very little about due to its sealed borders and the constant state of animosity felt between them and the rest of the world.

The Defector gives us the best possible look we can get of North Korea, showing us exactly what goes on there without the filter of state-run television feeds and official press releases.  Since the film takes place at the time when Kim Jong Il died and his son Kim Jong Un took over, we are able to understand the differences between the two leaders in how they treated defectors.  True, Il was not kind to them but according to Dragon, Un is much more ruthless toward anyone trying to escape his country.  This adds to the danger that is already incredibly high, not just for the defectors but their families as well.  Shin blurs out everyone’s faces because if their identity is known, even if they make it to freedom, their families are still in North Korea and would be punished if their identities are known.

Shin manages to tell this story in a tight, suspenseful, compact 71 minutes.  To go longer would have been testing the patience of the audience due to the form of the piece.  Given that it is an investigative journalism piece, a longer running time would have felt padded and may have detracted from the fear that is naturally felt in brief storytelling.

…the film is an impressive piece of work and one that was obviously a passion project for the director.  It is tense without being cloying or too obviously trying to keep the end a secret to escalate the tension.

The one fault in form I will mention is some early transition animations Shin used.  Early on in the film, she uses transitions that look like they are out of a Zach Snyder film, or even Ang Lee’s Hulk or Persopolis (2007) and they detract from the narrative flow.  They look odd and out of place because of their comic book style and do not fit in with the visual ascetic of the rest of the film.  Thankfully, these transitions are dropped after only a few uses but that just underscores how perplexing they were in the first place.

Other than that, the film is an impressive piece of work and one that was obviously a passion project for the director.  It is tense without being cloying or too obviously trying to keep the end a secret to escalate the tension.  The tension comes from the fear of the defectors, predominantly when they are speaking directly to the camera and sharing their thoughts.  Those are the only moments the film strays into ‘talking head’ territory and it is well used.  We get to know Sook-ja and Yong-hee, their fears and their hopes and most of all their determination to free themselves from the dictatorial rule of North Korea.  We find out that they don’t hate North Korea, just what it has become and hope to be able to return after the circumstances change, if they ever do.

The Defector: Escape from North Korea is a well-made film that exposes a part of the world that is often shielded so heavily we can only know through conjecture.  It is exactly the kind of thing that is missing from contemporary journalism, and for filling that void, director Shin should be commended.  The risk she took to tell these women’s stories, and that of Dragon, was well worth it because it brings to light struggles that people in the West do not have to face.  It also highlights the depths of human courage and the will to survive despite indomitable odds.

[notification type=”star”]80/100 ~ GREAT. The Defector: Escape from North Korea is a well-made film that exposes a part of the world that is often shielded so heavily we can only know through conjecture. It is exactly the kind of thing that is missing from contemporary journalism, and for filling that void, director Shin should be commended.[/notification]

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I believe film occupies a rare place as art, entertainment, historical records and pure joy. I love all films, good and bad, from every time period with an affinity to Classical Hollywood in general, but samurai, sci-fi and noir specifically. My BA is in Film Studies from Pitt and my MA is in Education. My goal is to be able to ignite a love of film in others that is similar to my own.