Beyond Utopia

Directed By Madeleine Gavin

The Plot – The story of several families as they attempt to escape oppression in North Korea, revealing a world most of us have never seen.

Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violent content and disturbing imagery

Beyond Utopia – Official Trailer – YouTube


Very few films justifiably earn the designation of being miraculous, but after establishing the kind of rare accessibility that Madeleine Gavin does in various hidden cameras inside and out of North Korea, no other word properly defines the experience. We all know plenty about Kim Jong Un and the regime that he has supplanted for himself, so we understand that by Gavin leaving dramatizations and recreations on the cutting room floor, and instead opting for gritty, viral depiction in the lives of these many tortured victims is guerilla filmmaking at its most admirable, and one that pays immense dividends towards conveying the terrifying circumstances of living in what is easily the most dangerous place on the planet. Gavin constructs a dual arc narrative involving two sides of respective defectors, one a financially struggling family on the brink of collapse and the other an emotionally ailing mother manufacturing an escape route for her teenage son from outside enemy lines, with enough real time interaction to fill a dramatic soap opera. While the family dominates the majority of the run time inside of the documentary’s 110 minute run time, both play an integral role in outlining the bigger picture with their country’s dangerously deceptive policies, and ones that even in my thirty-eight years of knowledge attained about North Korea, still brought forth many unsettling insights implemented into the mind of their youths, which made angry and even empathetic towards them. Gavin does a masterful job at raising awareness for the realities of this depressing setting, not just in the depths of her shockingly revealing footage, but also from the variety of North Korean born speaking guests, who illustrate such seething discontempt for a country that portrays and even plagiarizes this very manipulative image that even its own people have trouble buying. Because of such, the film explores many unique vantage points, young and old, in the responses of those held captive, with a hint of optimism for youths that can still be saved, but also an element of Stockholm Syndrome with its elderly, who after decades of lies find it difficult to change and be reprogrammed overnight. The missions themselves, especially that of the family of six treking through dark waters, dangerous jungles and damp caverns is ripe with dramatic intensity, earning attention-grasping emphasis long before the music score ever has a chance to meander these sentiments, and while the idea of freedom is inspiring for anyone watching from beyond, the responsible writer within me should explain that Gavin’s depiction of North Korea is every bit as cold and unforgiving as the rest of the world have come to know it, so happy endings aren’t always on the table for an overwhelming amount of defectors who seek sanctuary every single day. This brings forth Gavin’s most vital element of her storytelling, in the form of a North Korean born pastor who has helped hundreds reach newfound freedom that they never could’ve dreamed. To say that this man is a hero is dramatically selling him short, especially since each mission requires him to not only risk his life in traveling to countries that he is banned from, but also in meticulously planning out each aspect of the escape route, which as we learn could easily go south at any moment throughout. If this documentary has a protagonist, then he is easily it, and while not a complaint about my personal experience with the film, I do wish it spent more of its ambitious run time fleshing out the significance of his bravery, especially with a unique escape story of his own, whose success saved legions of other citizens who grew to feel the same way about their country as he did. Finally, while the technical merits aren’t an overwhelming success, as I will convey with biggest negative of the presentation, the maintained emphasis on naturalism further feeds into the immersive outline of the engagement, leaving the correspondance of sight and sounds free from post-production influence. Because most of the aforementioned family’s escape route takes shape at night, the night-vision lenses, while occasionally obscuring clarity, remain persistent in depiction, as does the static-heavy enveloping of the phone conversations that narrate them. Both of these prove vital for Gavin’s direction, as she’s clearly a stickler for the details of environmental atmosphere, and considering the film takes advantage of its accessibility to these events in real time, allows it to stick out in the best ways towards elevating itself from predecessor documentaries of this particular subject.


Only two issues, one major and one minor, momentarily detracted from my faithful investment, and ultimately kept “Beyond Utopia” from reaching the mountaintop of my grading scale. The first and lesser of the two pertains to on-screen subtitles in the translations from Korean to English. The speed of this text delivery is good, but it’s bland white coloring leaves occasional issues during sequences with white backgrounds, especially since those conveying white photographs cut into half of the lettering in the first sentence, making it a chore to decipher what the dialogue is trying to convey to us. My bigger issue pertains to the editing, primarily during the third act, where tensions at an all-time high during the climax of the family’s escape route are abruptly intruded upon by in-studio interviews that eviscerate tension. Using these guests during the first two acts proves vital to the experience, especially since Gavin’s over-arching narrative touches on many unique angles of insight with Korean policies, but I wish she would’ve exercised a greater restraint during these key moments, especially with the well-being of these people possibly being compromised at any given second.

“Beyond Utopia” is an uncompromisingly gripping and breathlessly urgent look at the realities of North Korea, and what its victimized will do to escape from such conditions. With unfiltered access and unlimited insight, Madeleine Gavin paints a very bleak and desparaging look into the world’s most terrifying regime and the dictator who pulls its strings, leveling us remarkably with what is easily the most essential film of 2023.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

One thought on “Beyond Utopia

  1. Dang….I wish I had heard about this one sooner because this sounds incredible and relevant. It takes a lot for a documentary to he as gripping and suspenseful as you made it sound, but I will try to seek this one out as soon as possible. I definitely anticipate this to be one of your best of the year and hope that more people check it out. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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