HotDocs13: The Defector: Escape from North Korea (2012)


Tight shots inside a car at night. Flashes of streetlights and neon signs. A shadowy figure speaking. We could be watching some thriller set in East Asia, but we’re not. Or not exactly. Ann Shin’s The Defector: Escape from North Korea follows a small group of North Korean defectors as they make their way through China, across the top of Laos to Thailand, and then abroad. While the documentary’s narrative takes on aspects of an escape thriller, the film’s heart is for the plight of North Koreans fleeing their country’s oppressive regime.

The Defector: Escape from North Korea focuses on Sook-ja and Yong-hee, two young women now in China, who escaped from North Korea in search of a better life. Their flight has followed the usual pattern. Since the North-South Korean border is the most heavily fortified on the planet, North Korean defectors must instead escape across the border to northern China, where human traffickers often ensnare them. The film also spends some time with Mr. Heo, a successful defector now living in Toronto.

We soon meet Dragon, a some-what dubious, fiery “broker,” who runs a network for smuggling North Koreans out of China through the southern border with Laos—for a fee. Actually, I shouldn’t say we “meet” Dragon—or Sook-ja, or Yong-he. Shin wisely obscures all the characters’ faces and suppresses their family names. This is for their security, and for the safety of their families still in North Korea. Shin’s technique of concealment was new to me; there’s no darkened studio with a silhouette smoking. Instead, Shin and her crew use natural backlighting, narrow focal length, and digital manipulation to darken and blur the faces. However, she often keeps a small portion of the face in focus—an eye, a mouth—to allow for that human connection, despite the need for covertness.

Part of the thrill comes from seeing the filmmakers go along for much of the ride. They are present for the meetings with Dragon, and, most anxiously, on the long van ride south from Xian to Kunming. The driver has been told the defectors are simply migrant workers, and The Defector: Escape from North Korea is at peak tension when there is some confusion about the drop point and the driver walks off to get directions.

Unfortunately, the circumstances of filming create some gaps as well. Shin and her crew cross the border the usual way, and have to wait in Thailand for the defectors to traverse the mountains and forests—events we only see in snippets of subjective re-enactment. Of course, I don’t expect the filmmakers to place themselves in harm’s way, but I have to admit that the genre-trained part of my brain was disappointed.

7 out of 10

The Defector: Escape from North Korea (Canada, 2012)

Directed by Ann Shin.