February 17, 2013

Kimjongilia: The Flower of Kim Jong Il: Dancing on the DMZ

Kimjongilia is one weird-ass documentary. Not content to only serve up "talking head"-style interviews with people who have escaped from North Korea, director NC Heikin splices up the talk with some of her own modern dance sequences and some homegrown movie/TV clips from the hermit nation. If you're wondering how such a strange structure came to be, consider this: Heikin is a dancer-choreographer as well as a filmmaker. Unconventional? Yes. But so is every documentary about North Korea. Since you can't legally bring cameras inside the country, filmmakers are forced to be inventive both in how they get their footage and how they present it. And to be honest, Heikin's robotic dances inspired by Korea's automaton crossing-guards are a lot more chilling than the slow motion sections of Pieter Fleury's Day in the Life or Yang Yong-hi's distasteful interrogation of her father in Dear Pyongyang.

Not all Heikin's kinesthetic commentary is that effective but no matter. The muscle of Kimjongilia remains its very personal confessions from which we learn of a soldier who slid under barbed wire (along with his friend who didn't make it), a woman carried across the Chinese border (by a brother who also didn't make it) and a man who took his entire family across the water to South Korea. (Against all odds, they made it!) Every story is gripping, especially when you consider that escape isn't just dangerous for the defector but for all the members of the defector's family as well. (Three generations of relatives are imprisoned in labor camps for the rest of their lives when someone defects.) To say that these refugees are universally haunted would be an understatement.

Famine. Fascism. Fanaticism. You can see why some attempt to escape despite the cost. One small compensation: In a culture of paranoia, everything is suspect. Which means that imprisoned relatives never really know for sure why they've ended up in Hell. Maybe it was something they said, something they didn't say, something they did or something they didn't do. They'll never know for sure. And that's a small blessing for those who have left them behind. A very small one.

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