DVD: Kimjongilia (2009)

December 23, 2010 | By

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Film: Very Good/ DVD Transfer: Very Good/ DVD Extras: Good

Label: Mongrel (Canada) / Lorber (U.S.) / Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: October 12, 2010

Genre: Documentary / North Korea

Synopsis:  Oral chronicles by refugees of life in North Korea under the fist of Kim Il Jong.

Special Features: 6 Deleted Scenes




“He can travel miles while sitting down! Kim Il-Sung has superhuman powers! He’d appear simultaneously in the east and west. Kim Il-Sung can fly north, south, east and west!”

As one of the interviewed refugees in Kimjongilia recounts, North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, developed a cult that presented himself as a kind of divine superhero – an all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-smiling, well-dentifriced creature guiding the newly minted country with the benevolent but firm hand, like a fatherly disciplinarian. To disagree or attempt to flee his worker’s paradise, though, was a heinous deed, punishable with singular or differing combinations of internment, torture, and death,

Frequently billed as ‘the world’s most isolated country,’ Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (aka the DPRK) has a peculiar aura that’s more alluring than the former East Germany because DPRK citizens have been bullied since 1953 into a massive cult surrounding each successive ruler in the Kim dynasty, with statues, posters, art and music peppering the landscape and airwaves to ensure total subjugation and brainwashing that everything about the Kims is really, really swell.

Radios are hardwired to present reception of South Korean airwaves, art must be approved by Soviet-styled bureaucratic bodies, architecture and memorials of grand scale reduce any sense of individualism, and major cultural events are tied to the birthday of Kim Il-Sung, as well as the Mass Games / May Day circus held in the Rungrado May stadium, which houses up to 150,000 spectators and has featured parades, soccer matches, and the burning alive of treasonous souls.

Writer / director N.C. Heikin doesn’t have any revelatory footage of life in the DPRK, but he uses the testimonies from a diverse group of refugees to illustrate the cruelties of its regime under Kim Il-Sung, and his current successor, the ailing Kim Jong-Il, who recently inferred his green-eared son Kim Jong-un will take over the nuclear reigns real soon.

The victimized refugees are youths, young adults, adults, and seniors, and some of their tales include experiences of torture, beatings, and public executions where children were forced to watch their parents die.

Because of China’s relationship with North Korea – it’s one of the DPRK’s few friends with diplomatic ties – there’s an agreement to repatriate refugees, forcing those on the run to stay under cover. Some manage to escape Chinese borders, whereas others become ensnared in tortuous situations, such as one girl’s account of being a sex slave for 5 years.

The most gut-wrenching account comes from an older woman whose parents were murdered by the Kim regime, whose sons died while trying to escape, whose daughter was given up for adoption, and whose husband has been missing for 35 years.

Heikin’s documentary relies on personal recollections which he’s arranged into a loose narrative, with the occasional historical diversion and pictorial montages on the Kim dynasty, its cultural quirks, and a few rare snippets from propagandistic films extolling the virtues of life in the workers’ paradise.

Because of a fear of government reprisals towards family members still in North Korea, a few of the refugees are filmed in arty extreme close-ups and roving macro shots. Heikin also interpolates brief vignettes in which creative dance evokes the torment of the refugees, and while it’s a risky creative move, it generally works, enhancing the memories with abstract or sometimes symbolic movements.

Heikin’s superimposition of the dance motif in the intro montage is a clever device: a dancer in a traffic worker outfit mimics the tightly clipped arm gestures where traffic is alerted to move using a baton. The dancer’s movements initially function as animated bullet points for onscreen text before later movements move towards the abstract.

The doc eventually focuses on the new struggles that refugees face after they’ve crossed the border into China, the contrast between the two distinct North and South Korean cultures, and whether the Kim dynasty can survive another generation.

The DVD’s extras include a handful of deleted scenes, of which most are short bits that don’t add much to the doc. Longer segments with unused interviews were likely dropped because of repeated information, whereas a montage in which refugees were asked to sing a national song praising Kim Il-Sung was rightly kept on the cutting room floor due to the chuckling that would’ve destroyed the doc’s grim and disturbing tone.

Michael Gordon’s minimalist score seems to consist of a few cues that are oft-repeated, sometimes evoking annoyance instead of supporting important sequences, but it’s likely Heikin’s responsible for overusing Gordon’s generally haunting and affective cues.

The doc has some rough spots, but Heikin manages to make his points through the simple, horrible anecdotes of ordinary people brutalized by an inhuman and ridiculous regime.



© 2010 Mark R. Hasan


.Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD / Film:  Comrades in Dreams (2006))


External References:

IMDB Official Website


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