Hot Docs: The Defector: Escape From North Korea [2013, Ann Shin]


An intense and gripping affair, The Defector follows a group of North Korean defectors as they try to make the 3000+ kilometer journey to escape out of China on their way to claiming refugee status.

Directed by Ann Shin, we are quickly thrown into a world of safe houses, secret meetings, hidden cameras and a particularly mysterious broker named Dragon. The man is responsible for guiding the defectors to freedom but seems morally ambiguous (he is still, running a business). Dragon’s methods and actual motivations are constantly in question and as such is of great stress for both the crew and defectors. Among the defectors we meet are Sook-Ja and Yong-Heem two North Korean ladies who have already suffered through a lifetime of hardships in both North Korea and China. Yong-Hee was instantly sold to a China businessmen to be his wife when she arrived in China while Sook-Ja has not heard from her sister (who also defected) in seven years.

At 70 minutes, this documentary moves ahead at the pace of an action packed television show. Computer graphics and staged scene shots are used to move the story along so at times, the slickness of it all might seem a bit too stylized at times but doesn’t take anything away from the film. Being an illegal operation, all the people involved had to have their identity hidden but it was done in a tasteful way as not be too much if a distraction throughout the film. As we follow the group from Yanji to Xian to their final destination, the constant threat of detection by Chinese officials looms large with everyone (including the film crew, who probably would have been screwed if they were discover) and that constant threat weighs on everyone and makes the documentary that much more engaging. I would have liked to hear some opinions from Chinese officials on the matter, but obviously, that wasn’t going to happen.

An entertaining, informative and beautifully shot film on human smuggling and the life and dangers that face North Koreans in and out of their country every day. Recommended.

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs

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Britpop lovin Chinaman, consumer of all things irrelevant. Toronto Raptors fan.