We’ll concede the point: This collection of testimonials from North Korean escapees is no Sunday-afternoon stroll, but it is a horrifying-fascinating peek into a “hermit kingdom” that’s a bigger mystery than life on other planets. Kim Jong Il’s dictatorship and its prison camps are sketched in a portrait of communist tailspin that evokes the most medieval moments of the 20th century. Obviously, this is not a tough case for a filmmaker to make, especially with geopolitics off the table and other aspects of the totalitarian country having already been explored in other docs (e.g., The Red Chapel). But the first-person accounts here are vivid—the terrors of starvation, slavery and midnight flight. One man’s escape was inspired by a smuggled copy of The Count of Monte Cristo; a typical story begins, “The first time I ate a mouse…"
Director N.C. Heikin sympathetically wraps things in piano music and dance sequences that suggest bodily freedom; it’s not an entirely successful gambit, and gives the movie an unpolished insistence. But the filmmaker strikes gold in her varied selection of defectors, especially the military man fed up with the myopic chain of command. Nutty propaganda reels are here too, naturally, but even that glorious-leader kitsch screams prison camp more than camp.