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The Kwan-li-so Archipelago: N. C. Heikin’s “Kimjongilia” Reviewed

A shiny coat AND access to food - this goat must have powerful friends.

Goats don't usually get this much to eat, but this one is high up in the Party.

The hermetically sealed theocracy-meets-Stalinist dictatorship of North Korea does not allow foreign reporters or filmmakers onto their territory. The state’s quasi-racist ideology shuns them – they might taint Korean purity. So, aside from the Chinese and Russian workers who necessarily do cross-border business, or the odd tourist from harmless countries like Switzerland, there are not many people who can talk about North Korea with the kind of first-hand experience that makes a documentary especially compelling. N. C. Heikin’s Kimjongilia skirts around those foreign middlemen and goes directly to the source: North Korean refugees who have successfully made it to South Korea. Their stories, told through filmed interviews, are harrowing, horrifying, and rarely have a happy ending.

The film, which takes its name from a flower named in honor of the Dear Leader, is built primarily around these interviews. And Heikin has chosen well: the interviewees represent a broad cross-section of North Korean society. Some, like a concert pianist and a highish-ranking military officer, come from privileged (relatively speaking) backgrounds. Others toiled away in squalid conditions as farmers. What these subjects have in common is their fate: most ended up in the system of concentration camps that crisscrosses North Korea. One unlucky soul was even born in a camp. For anyone who has read literature by authors who survived the Holocaust or the gulag system in the USSR, the picture that emerges will seem familiar. Life is, for the most part, tightly regimented, with a few little pockets of freedom. Creativity is extinguished.  The system as a whole forces people to exploit one another to survive. This is ugly but necessary viewing.

Heiken is to be commended for capturing the little details that convey some essential element of his interviewee’s humanity. The way the military officer, though controlled in his speech, wears an intense and angry look on his face when he talks about the government. The way that the man born in the concentration camp tents his hands over and over while he talks – maybe to hide a mutilated finger, maybe because it’s a deeply-ingrained gesture of submission, maybe for no reason at all. The way the voice of the woman who was sold into sexual slavery in China for 5 years remains steady, even when she discusses her risky escape. With some interviewees, the camera begins with a closeup on the eye before moving down to the mouth. Such artifice can be distracting and annoying when employed too often (see the first season Errol Morris’s documentary series First Person for a perfect example of this), but here its used sparingly enough that it retains its effectiveness. (It occurred to me later that it may also be a device to obscure the identity of some of the interviewees; elsewhere the director drenches them in shadow à la Unsolved Mysteries.) It is not hard to persuade an audience that Kim Jong-Il’s government is one of the most, if not the most, repugnant governments presently in existence. The difficult task is to put a human face on what that means without overwhelming the viewer. Heiken handles this task well.


Dogs in the Worker's Paradise do not wear such decadent garments.

This also comes in part from the film’s beautiful complementary visuals. Sometimes they are ironic. There are a lot of clips from the preposterous melodramas and propaganda films produced by the North Korean government, and Heiken juxtaposes them with the stark reality that the scene in question is attempting to whitewash. Other times, the complementary visuals amplify a mood. There are abstract scenes cut into the film featuring a dancer dressed in the iconic uniform of the female cops that direct Pyongyang’s non-existent traffic. These sequences are mesmerizing. The dancer’s jerky and increasingly tortured movements visually reinforce the tremendous struggles of many of the interviewees. These sequences are also, therefore, sometimes hard to watch. But they never go on so long that they steal attention from the interviewees or distract the viewer.

Films like Kimjongilia necessarily require potted histories and other types of expository storytelling. Rather than the somber wall of text approach, Heiken livens up these necessary presentations with kinetic text, images and short film clips. This can go horribly wrong, as in Robert Barry Ptolemy’s dreadful Transcendent Man, but here they work well. The visuals are well composed and attractive without being flashy. This again is a fine line, and Heiken walks it well. These visual components share a lot in common with some iconic opening and closing credits sequences that people have come to appreciate in their own right.

If you are already familiar with North Korea and the horrific way of life its citizens “enjoy,” Kimjongilia will not tell you anything you did not already know. There are no stunning revelations or insights. What it offers is perhaps more important than that, though. Anyone can marshal statistics and data to convince an audience of one thing or another, but without a human face, the effect remains effervescent. By contrast, the interviewees in this film leave an indelible impression. You may have known the North Korean government was cruel, but not this cruel. Kimjongilia is not always an easy watch, but to restrict one’s viewing to only what is easy is to close one’s self off from the true emotional power cinema can have.