In The Defector, Canadian-Korean director and producer Ann Shin follows a group of five North Korean defectors and their broker, ‘Dragon’, on a dangerous and long journey from Northern China to Thailand, via Laos PDR.
Dragon, who is a self-professed “human rights activist” (and not “some shady broker”), left North Korea in 2001 and spends most of the documentary on his cellphone orchestrating movements of refugees, or working to ensure his $3000 fee is forthcoming.
The group of defectors followed by the film crew includes two women, Sook-Ja and Yong-hee, who throughout the film director Shin becomes close to. Facilitated by Dragon, the defectors go on to tell stories of loss and strife inside North Korea. Sook-ja came to China to find a sister who left the DPRK and has not been heard of for over seven years. For her part, Yong-Hee was sold to a Chinese husband in Hunan eight years ago, but feels guilty about leaving, since she had cost him a great deal of money in the first place.
When the film shifts focus to Canada, the country Shin herself is from, it follows Mr. Heo’s story, a man who had previously escaped from North Korea in 2008 but chosen to live in Canada rather than South Korea. In the film, Mr. Heo is awaiting confirmation that he can stay in Canada with his wife and young children, whilst also waiting to hear whether Dragon can locate the daughter of an elderly defector living in Canada who was last known to be working at a ginseng farm in China.
The tension of the situation defectors often face is effectively created throughout the entire documentary, especially when the production shifts back to the plight of Sook-Ja and Yong-hee. When they arrive at the first safe house, the news of Kim Jong Il’s death is breaking and reports of Kim Jong Un’s crackdowns on escapees makes the remainder of their journey uncertain. The intensity of their situation increases when Dragon is obliged to leave the defectors to continue by themselves. For example, in one instance they are travelling by car to Kunming without correct documentation, when a police cars stop the bus in front and the car beside them. Later on, director Shin is not allowed to follow the escapees’ path through Laos and must wait for them in Thailand, but they do not arrive on time, and Dragon narrates the volatility of the Laotian guides who are drug smugglers with AK-47s.
Interspersed with animated scenes designed to show the shift from China to Canada, recreations of escapee efforts to battle the flowing Tumen river and trek through the Laotian jungle, the film combines these scenes with secret footage filmed inside North Korea of starving children. As such, the film’s style is visually engaging and throughout there are several reminders that this it is not a scripted or overproduced film. The emotional reactions and up-close interviews serve to remind that these are real people, filmed in real time, and that their movements illustrate a very real escape.
If the impending fear of being caught by the Chinese police and returned to prison or execution in North Korea wasn’t enough, director Shin travels to South Korea six months after the defectors arrive in Thailand to discover if, as Mr. Heo earlier says, life is just as difficult in the South for a North Korean.
The presence of Dragon in South Korea demanding repayment for his services is just a small part of the seemingly never-ending battle the defectors face. While Sook-ja refuses to be filmed again once in South Korea for fear of the repercussions her family in North Korea may face, she does tell Shin in a Skype call that she does not even have enough money for clothes. Yong-hee, on the other hand, experiences threats against her family in North Korea.
Well-produced and informative about the real dangers and one particular route used by North Korean refugees, The Defector assumes a certain degree of background knowledge and largely distances itself from the politics. Apart from when the defectors are shown criticizing the life they once lived, the movie itself provides little of its own information on the situation inside North Korea, and tends not to elaborate on the fate of those caught and returned to North Korea. Although this is fine if one is already familiar with the North Korea issue, for others it could make for a frustrating watch and leave some questions unanswered.
A unique documentary with thoughtful production and a striking visual identity, The Defector is a must-see for anyone interested in North Korean refugees, human rights or, simply in the difficulties of real human lives.