For a few decades now, North Korea has had the unusual distinction of being one of, if not the, most closed off nations on the entire planet. When the communist party came into power under Kim Il Sung, what should have been a workers utopia soon began to spiral into a hornet's nest of problems, and that trend continued tenfold after Kim Il Sung passed away and his son, Kim Jong Il, took over. Appointed ruler for life, as most news savvy westerners know, Kim Jong Il is a bit of a megalomaniac. While he's maybe not quite as over the top as he's portrayed in Team America: World Police, Matt Stone and Trey Parker's puppet version doesn't appear to be all that far off. Exaggerated, sure, but he is a leader either incredibly blind or content to live in complete denial.
N.C. Heikin's documentary, Kimjongilia, is named after the flower that the 'great leader' had created and named after himself, a flower that's meant to represent wisdom, love and justice - three qualities that in so many ways seem completely foreign to this man who is entirely content to run his country into the ground. The movie allows a half dozen or so North Korean expatriates to talk about their days behind the border in the north and then discuss how and just as importantly why they opted to risk life and limb to escape. Some fled for reasons of religious persecution - North Korean law dictates that there is no God, which is obviously an issue for the country's Christian population, others because they tired of life inside one of the many prison camps that are still run to this day and which are eerily similar to those used by Hitler to detain and mass murder so many Jews during the Second World War.
As these interviewees, young and old, male and female, tell stories of poverty, abuse, murder, imprisonment, we get a firsthand account of just how harsh conditions are on the north side of the demilitarization zone that separates North and South Korea and learn how dangerous trying to escape the country is. Hopping an electric fence made of razor wire to get into China, where they will 'repatriate' North Korean refugees without blinking an eye, is a risk in and of itself, but so too are the other options, by they heading into Mongolia or trying to escape by navigating the surrounding ocean in a simple rowboat. The lengths that people will go to in order to live a life illegally and under the radar in China are pretty startling, and not at all unlike what a lot of illegal immigrants are willing to go through in order to cross into America (it's impossible to watch this documentary and not make that connection).
The film never overstays its welcome and its seventy five minutes running time goes past fairly quickly. In addition to the sobering interview sound bites, we're subjected to some North Korean propaganda videos and clips of military demonstrations and parades, all held in honor of the great leader. In between these two very different aspects of the film Heikin splices in clips of some interpretive dance performances which somehow seem to echo the thoughts relayed to us by those interviewed. It takes some adjusting to initially and at first, quite honestly, it seems really corny but as the movie plays out and you start being drawn into it, this turns out to be a fairly interesting and surprisingly effective tool in gaining some emotional investment from the audience.
This isn't a film you're going to put on to entertain your friends when they come over for movie night but it's absolutely worth seeing, particularly for anyone with an interest in politics, world events, or basic human rights. It's emotionally stirring and often times quite harrowing but it sheds some light on a country that many of us in the west don't really know all that much about.
Kimjongilia looks pretty good in the 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on this DVD. Some of the archival clips and photos do show their age, particularly the interesting old propaganda videos, but the newer footage is pretty much pristine. Color reproduction is reasonably strong, nice and bright and bold, while skin tones always look pretty natural. Some shimmering is present and if you look for them you might spot some really mild compression artifacts here and there but they're far from overpowering or even distracting. All in all, the image quality here is pretty good, though the image is interlaced.
There is a Korean language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track that comes with forced English SDH subtitles. No alternate language dubs or subs are offered. Overall, the levels are well balanced and the dialogue is always easy to follow. Some of the interview scenes have a bit of really mild background noise, but there's nothing to get upset about here, it sounds fine.
Aside from menus and chapter selection, the disc also contains about eight minutes worth of deleted interview footage. None of this material really changes anything about the feature and it was probably cut out for pacing reasons, but it does serve to shed further light on what some of these expatriates went through to escape from North Korea.
Kimjongilia may not win any awards in the audio/video quality department nor is it a particularly feature laden affair but it's a pretty harrowing documentary that approaches its subject in interesting ways. . Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.