A rarely permitted glimpse into The Hermit Kingdom


on March 22, 2010 by Mark Keizer

First hand accounts of life in North Korea are hard to come by. The Hermit Kingdom is infamous for its humanitarian abuses, powerful neighbors, formidable weaponry (although North Korea’s actual capabilities are up for debate) and ability to string America and the impotent UN along. But its greatest strength is its ability to keep a lid on everything that goes on within its borders. In her documentary-directing debut, N.C. Heikin has gathered rare video shot in-country and riveting escapee stories to create a commendable upgrade to our limited fount of North Korean knowledge, which almost completely mitigates the doc’s numerous problems. At 74 tough and tragic minutes, though, Kimjongilia is not destined for monetary glory. The waiting arms of public television are the more likely destination.

Rules of the Sector…
Any prisoner that does not do his best to complete the assigned work will be presumed to have an attitude and will be executed by firing squad immediately.
Any prisoner who steals or hides food will be shot by firing squad immediately.

Pretty much any transgression in a North Korean prison is punishable by firing squad immediately. And pretty much any transgression can get you thrown into a North Korean prison immediately, including saying anything negative about its leader, Kim Jong-il (and, before him, North Korean founder and Eternal President, Kim Il-sung). That’s the tragedy of North Korea. Either its citizens die knowing the truth of what their troubled homeland is all about, or they live in ignorance of the full extent of its government’s action. And yet, much like last year’s Oscar nominated documentary Burma VJ, Kimjongilia contains priceless footage that found its way out of an isolated, repressed country, allowing us to bear witness to a poverty that drives adults to eat mice and children to forage for morsels on the dirty ground. Testimonials from those who’ve spent time in what are essentially concentration camps are heartbreaking. Shin Dong-Hyuk was forced to watch his mother and brother publicly executed. The parents of a woman identified as Mrs. Kim starved to death in the camps and her son was tortured until handicapped. The anguished words of these survivors are mesmerizing; even though Heikin frames some of them so tightly we can only see their eye and cheek, denying us the chance to take in the enormity of the sorrow on their faces. It’s one of a few questionable choices by Heikin. When Kang Chol-Hwan tells of being inspired to escape by reading The Count of Monte Cristo, the grainy clips from a filmed version of the novel are distracting. And some of the stories are accompanied by interpretive dance. As an ex-hoofer, Heikin might feel that interpretive dance adds emotional weight and visual interest to stories that otherwise lack supporting video. But interpretive dance is a haughty, esoteric form of expression that feels wrong here. It might have worked if the dancer was clearly identified as an important artistic figure or survivor herself. Without that connection, it just doesn’t work.

It’s easier to put these reservations aside when considering the impact of the individual accounts and how rare it is for relatively wide audiences to hear these tragic tales. For the story of North Korea is basically the story of the world’s most powerful cult of personality. The country’s modern form took shape after Korea was divided into North and South (along the 38th Parallel) after World War 2. North Korea was founded in 1948 and in 1950 president Kim Il-sung invaded the south in a failed attempt to reunite the country. The resulting Korean War lasted until 1953 and ended with a return to the borders established by the 38th Parallel. After that, Kim went full retard. Fealty to the Great Leader became mandatory and complete. As related in the film, “totally brainwashed” citizens were forced to “worship him like the Sun” and taught to believe he could fly and didn’t need to urinate. Heikin includes choice clips from North Korean propaganda films with smiling actors (penalty for not smiling: prison) singing the praises of the Great Leader (penalty for not singing the praises of the Great Leader: prison) and dancing in perfect unison at what looks like their annual Arirang Mass Games (penalty for not dancing in perfect unison at the Arirang Mass Games: prison). Hearing a narrator claim that “working restless for the people’s happiness, I feel my eyes moisten” is like hearing aliens sing the praises of their home planet. Such forced fidelity mixed with bottomless cruelty makes a good case to just screw it, take over the country and reunite the Koreas ourselves. Some will note that North Korea has the world’s fourth largest standing army, which is ironic considering that famine is so widespread most of the populace is too starved to stand. Food shortages were rampant before the demise of the Soviet Union, but after Kim lost such a vital ally, multitudes began dying of malnutrition. Families sold everything to get out, usually crossing the Chinese border because the DMZ is too fortified (Heikin includes surreptitiously recorded video documenting how some North Koreans escaped only to be sold into slavery by the Chinese). Meanwhile, the continuing famine has killed millions. As Heikin notes, the government did reach out for humanitarian aid, which was given until it was discovered that between 30%-70% of donated funds were going to the country’s elite.

Heikin’s smartest choice was not interviewing professors, authors or Western government officials to ponder the North Korean problem. Kimjongilia, named after the flower cultivated to celebrate Dear Leader’s 46th birthday, is a potent verbal document, a cry to the West, a purging of pent up sorrows. The survivors interviewed may not be in the hands of the person best qualified to tell their stories in big screen fashion. But it’s hard to quibble with any new information concerning a repressive nation that is, almost inarguably, the worst place to live on Earth.

Distributor: Lorber Films
Director: N.C. Heikin
Producers: N.C. Heikin, Robert Pepin, Young-sun Cho and David Novack
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 75 min.
Release date: March 19 NY

Tags: documentary, Kim Jong Il, North Korea, politics, military, war

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