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Sundance Review | FOUR SUNS | "Beyond Utopia"

Beyond Utopia - Sundance Institute.jpeg
Sundance Institute
A still from Beyond Utopia by Madeleine Gavin, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Madeleine Gavin’s documentary about North Koreans attempting to defect from their country shows that a non-fiction film can be as dramatic and suspenseful as any Hollywood escape thriller.

The central character, Pastor Kim, has been helping refugees (and risking his own life) for years. The film tracks two of his cases. A young North Korean almost made it across the border but was snatched back. His mother, safely in the South, tries to learn his fate.

The second story concerns a three-generation family group attempting a trek across China and southeast Asia, with ultimate safety found only in Thailand.

The film quietly shows the logistics of escape—furtive cell-phone calls to the North; treacherous river crossings; and reliance on “brokers” who, more often than not, can’t be trusted.

We also get glimpses at the North’s history, the brutal rulers of the Kim dynasty, and the current dystopia—where children are press-ganged into garish musical extravaganzas for The People and households are instructed to collect and deliver human waste.