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Story Publication logo January 16, 2017

North Korea: Crossing the Line


Kim Il-sung Square, against a backdrop of the Taedong river and the Juche Tower on the other side. Photo by Laya Maheshwari. Image by Laya Maheshwari. North Korea, 2016.

Going to the cinema. Playing in a water park. Shopping at a supermarket. These are leisure...

A North Korean citizen enjoying herself at a shooting range in Pyongyang. Image by Laya Maheshwari. North Korea, 2016.
A North Korean citizen enjoying herself at a shooting range in Pyongyang. Image by Laya Maheshwari. North Korea, 2016.

Crossing the Line is the final installment in director Daniel Gordon's trilogy of films shot inside North Korea. While The Game of Their Lives and A State of Mind were sports documentaries, Crossing the Line narrates the tale of James Joseph Dresnok, an American soldier who defected to the North in 1962 while stationed at the Demilitarized Zone on the South Korean side. He is one of only six American soldiers ever to have voluntarily turned themselves over to the Communist regime after the Korean War, and, today, the last one remaining inside.

Conceptually, Crossing the Line is a huge jump from Gordon's previous North Korean works. A State of Mind occasionally relied on the voyeuristic pleasure derived from glimpses of everyday life in Pyongyang. This was justified not just because these peeks could be accommodated in the plot, but also because outside audiences had genuinely never seen life depicted that way in, arguably, the world's most isolated country. However, by 2006—when this film was in production—global awareness of the North had increased. Consequently, filmmakers wishing to engage with it would have to be more sophisticated in their approach too.

Over the course of its ninety-minute runtime, Crossing the Line delves into the psyches of prisoners of war, the act of defection, and the process of assimilating into a society that prides itself on its homogeneity. The narrative tours the globe and spans decades. We see Dresnok's home in Richmond, Virginia, as well as a fellow defector's reunion with his wife in Indonesia. We hear about Dresnok's deeply scarring time in the fifties after dropping out of high school, the shock he felt in the early sixties when new to Korean society, and his health problems after the turn of the century. Many viewers might be salivating to see more scenes of Pyongyang, but the plot dictates that a lot of time be spent on faces talking to the camera. To the filmmakers' credit, they don't shy away from this.

Aesthetically, however, Crossing the Line is busy in its graphics and editing—too much so at times—and seems to have been made with television syndication in mind. (Its first public, non-festival screening was on BBC.) The plot is laid out in roughly fifteen-minute chunks: easy divisions to insert breaks for advertisements, I suspect. This style represents a step down for Gordon, whose camera in A State of Mind was patient and unobtrusive. The background score is also prone to slight sensationalism, which is disappointing considering the maturity displayed in the same aspect by Gordon earlier. However, these complaints are only worth raising because there is enough in the film that's riveting and memorable to make up for them.

North Korea as a setting offers artists so much enigma and drama because the country itself is larger than life. Its fraught history is explained well in the film when it chronicles the Korean War and the societal perception of the United States. The eccentricities associated with its leaders, the Kim dynasty, and the hardline communism they've forced upon the country also make audience immersion a fait accompli. Add to that the truly unique saga of Dresnok and you have a potent cocktail.

Over a fifteen-month window, the filmmakers made multiple trips to North Korea for shooting. In this time, the story of their subject evolved beyond anything they would have had reason to imagine. Dresnok keeps talking about three other soldiers who defected after him, and their lives in North Korea. These soldiers were married to women who were also of different nationalities, but how these women arrived in Pyongyang (or were made to arrive) is never clear. It is well known that North Korea would abduct citizens of other countries and force them to start families inside the country. The regime had immense hopes for their mixed-race babies, such as training them to be spies. (Robert Boynton wrote about this horrific scheme for the New Yorker.)

Of the three soldiers who followed our protagonist, only one—Charles Jenkins—is still alive, and he defected in between interviews with Dresnok. This became a major international scandal at the time, its tentacles even reaching out to ensnare then-President George Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. We already have a niggling feeling that not everything Dresnok says is to be trusted—watch how he squirms and evades talking about the background of his first, supposedly Romanian wife inside North Korea—but the extent of how unreliable he is as a narrator is always up in the air. Once in the outside world, Jenkins makes some revelations that attack much of what we know about Dresnok himself, whose reaction to these new details is fascinating.

This is by far the best portion of Crossing the Line, and it encapsulates how tough to categorize the film is. It could simultaneously be a feature-length profile of one man, an investigation of how North Korea treated four prized defectors, and a snapshot of a feud between two men who have been through too much but tell us too little. The highest compliment I can pay Crossing the Line is that it serves as a vital journal of an important time in recent North Korean affairs—and that the production of this documentary would make for a highly intriguing feature film one day.

Until then, however, we have Gordon's engaging if overwrought effort to tide us over. Crossing the Line lacks the clean through-line that A State of Mind was born with, but its sprawl is part of its appeal. It reminds us that there are still many stories to be told about North Korea, and that any life inside this Hermit Kingdom is not as self-contained as we might assume.

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