Beyond Utopia (2023) is one of the Best Documentaries of Recent Years A+

A riveting documentary that captures on film the escape of a North Korean family to South Korea. The family, a mom and dad, their two children, and the eighty-year-old grandmother, have already crossed the Yula River, which separates North Korea from China, and are hiding in the Chinese mountains (The DMZ between North and South Korea is a minefield and cannot be crossed), would almost certainly not have made it without the help of South Korean human rights activist Pastor Kim Sung-eun. Using a network of safe houses and “underground railroads” that he and his colleagues in the south have established over the past two decades, the pastor escorts the family through Northern China, where they are dressed to look like South Korean tourists, a flight in a small plane to Vietnam, a nail-biting jungle crossing between Vietnam and Laos and finally a boat across the Mekong river to Thailand and freedom – China, Vietnam and Laos are all communist countries and getting caught in any of them would mean instant deportation back to the North Korea where the horrors of the gulag and death await them.

The scenes of the family’s escape are intercut with a more tragic narrative about a North Korean woman who has escaped but whose son, having made a later attempt and got as far as China, has been sent back for brutal punishment. Director/Editor Madeleine Gavin masterfully combines these two storylines with some astonishing insights into what it’s like to live in North Korea by people who have successfully defected, resulting in one of the best documentaries of recent years.

The tongue-in-cheek title refers to the town’s name near the Chinese border of North Korea, where the escaped family used to make their home.


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