I’m a big North Korea fan. Oh, wait—that sounds very bad! I’m obviously not a *fan* of a repressive and dictatorial country, but I do find the fact that a Stalinist country survives in this day and age to be fascinating. I eat up facts about and tales from North Korea like E.T eats up Reece’s Pieces. Helpfully, MUBI has a troika of docuflicks on North Korea playing right now. This is one review in Film Misery’s mini-marathon of the films.
Crossing the Line is a serious exploration of a mindset I’ve never really considered. I’ve read numerous accounts by defectors from North Korea—I highly recommend those contained in Kang Chol-Hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang and Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, as well as this New York Times article. But I don’t think I’ve ever before run into an account of a defector to the DPRK.
Yet this is precisely what Crossing the Line, another documentary from British filmmaker Daniel Gordon, gives us. Specifically, we follow ex-United States Army soldier James J Dresnok. A troubled child abandoned by his father, Dresnok joins the army in the late 1950s, eventually finding himself stationed in South Korea, near the northern border. Facing a court martial for forging documents allowing him time off, he heads out to the minefield separating the two Koreas and surrenders to the North.
The first half hour or so of Crossing the Line is a bit shaky. There’s a distressing amount of stock footage, which mostly has only a tangential relationship with Christian Slater’s narration. It can be incredibly frustrating watching a documentary about something of which there is no footage, so it’s not until Gordon actually sits down with the real James Dresnok that his film becomes interesting.
It’s not so much the psychology of what leads one to defect that captivates here. All of the interesting bits occur after the defection. Ultimately, four American soldiers decide to defect within a period of about eighteen months. They’ve made quite a leap; after all, it’s not just a new country, it’s a completely new ideology (fans of Sid Meier’s Civilization unite!), lifestyle, and state of mind.
It’s well known that propaganda from the DPRK is strongly anti-American, but the full effects of this hadn’t really been revealed to me. The north Korean government, of course, uses the four soldiers in propaganda, both to show their population that the Americans can be overcome, and to show Americans what they’re missing. But Dresnok and the other’s don’t mix well in North Korean society. The government effectively trained its population to be as racist as possible (the see themselves as The Cleanest Race), so to most everyday North Koreans, even the fact of the soldiers’ defection didn’t matter. They’re just unclean white people.
This changes when Dresnok and the others begin starring in North Korean films. Constantly playing ‘evil American bastards,’ they achieve something of celebrity status, and fans to this day address them by their character names. This was by far my most favourite part of the documentary—seeing footage of these cinematic extravaganzas. I’d give a year’s supply of oranges to be able to see any of them, even the twenty hour long Unknown Heroes, which features prominently.
By the end of Crossing the Line, it seems Dresnok has drunk most of the North Korean Kool-Aid. He blames the famine of the 1990s (The Arduous March) on US and Japanese blockades. While it’s my understanding that the famine was actually the result of the Soviet Union collapsing mixed with devastating natural disasters, perhaps we shouldn’t blame Dresnok too harshly. Why assume the government wouldn’t Ludovico him just like they do to everyone else? Crossing the Line is an engrossing exploration of the mental effects of totalitarianism, and how a brain can do anything to quell dissonance.