September 20, 2014

Camp 14: Total Control Zone: Levels of Persecution

Do not, I repeat, do not watch the emotionally-draining, aliens-please-come-and-obliterate-Earth-or-at-least-mankind-already Camp 14 before bedtime, for while this despairing documentary about the labor camps in North Korea keeps its torture scenes off screen and shows the bleak life therein largely via effectively colorless motion comics, survivor/escapee Shin Dong-Huyk's reluctantly related recollections of his childhood and young adulthood as an apolitical prisoner will still give you nightmares. And it's not just the descriptions of punishments inflicted that will ruin your sleep. You can also credit the many horrors that accompany living in a culture where there is no sense of family or friendship or fun. Truthfully, though, it's not the hope for freedom that drives him to flee for China (after climbing over the dead body of a compatriot stuck on an electric wire fence); it's the desire for chicken or beef or something new besides his ration of corn and occasional rat that might leave him with a full stomach for one day.

If you think that means that life in the labor camp wasn't so bad then you haven't been listening to the two prison guards director Marc Weise has also enlisted to tell their stories for his film. Well-dressed and self-composed, each relates a chillingly glib history of shooting, killing, torturing and raping as if they were discussing the regrettable but inevitable excesses of the teenage bullies they once were. You get a sense that both are embarrassed more than ashamed of their pasts. Why either would agree to be filmed for Camp 14 is baffling to me. Perhaps an inner sense of guilt informed their decisions but if so, neither shares much to that effect in this movie (or Weise has edited it out!).

Are they living the good life now without repercussions? Strangely enough, Camp 14 undermines that very idea too by having Shin repeatedly state his desire to go back North, back home, back to a simpler world (if not an identical one), free from the despairing realities he must grapple with now in South Korea where the dollar rules and his heart feels, while definitely broken and hopefully mending, infinitely less pure.

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