Sunday, February 19, 2012

Crossing the Line - Daniel Gordon

Crossing the Line is the third and final installment of Daniel Gordon's trilogy on North Korea. After gaining the confidence of the North Korean government with The Game of Their Lives (to be reviewed soon) and A State of Mind, Daniel Gordon requested permission to film a documentary about the four American soldiers who defected to North Korea in the early sixties. Only two of the four soldiers were still alive at that time: Joe Dresnok and Charles Jenkins, who hated each other for reasons that are explained in the film. Jenkins defected back to Japan while the movie was being filmed and spend 30 days in an American military prison after being judged by a military court. Dresnok decided to stay and spend the rest of his life in North Korea, so the movie focuses on him: his personal story as a member of America's Southern underclass (he came from a dysfunctional family, didn't finish high school, and his first wife cheated on him while he was in the army), his role as a movie star in North Korea, and his daily life as an elderly.

When I reviewed A State of Mind, the second movie of Gordon's trilogy, I said that it had become useless since the funerals of Kim Jong Il. The death of Kim Jong Il and the media show that the North Korean government presented to the World served only to reinforce preconceptions about the country: people who thought that the North Korean regime is composed of lunatics would carry on with that idea, while people who had admiration for the North Korean Communist Party (most notably, Mexico's Labor Party), would share the grief of the North Koreans who appeared on TV.

Crossing the Line, on the contrary, is a movie that transcends Kim Jong Il, or even North Korea. This is a movie about America's soldiers and the environment the grow in, but also about totalitarian regimes and their legitimacy. After watching this movie, you will spend a couple of hours trying to disentangle Dresnok's puzzle to no avail. Like all North Koreans, he was obviously brainwashed by the government (he admits having spent several years in "reeducation" after trying to ask political asylum in the Soviet Union's embassy), but the troubling thing is that he looks sincerely happy when he talks about his life in North Korea. His smile and his eyes don't betray him, as they do with people in other totalitarian regimes like China or Syria. Dresnok did well for himself in North Korea: his account of "The Arduous March", in which he acknowledges that the received his rations regularly while other people starved are meaningful, just like the scene when he appears drinking Jack Daniel's.

The great thing about this film is that it doesn't provide a clear answer to the primary question any person interested in this movie would like to answer: why did Dresnok (or Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, if you start considering civilians) defect? In the case of Dresnok, the answer has to do, I guess, with the desire to escape from a sad reality; in other cases, ideology plays the most important part, and so on. 

Last but not least, Gordon deserves praise for presenting the opinions of the South and North Korean and Japanese governments, and the American army in an balanced way fashion. Doing so guaranteed not only the survival of the film, but also enables the viewer to form his own opinion about Dresnok. The multiplicity of views also makes the movie look like a regular drama. This is one of the best documentaries I've seen in my life. The story could be made a Hollywood movie, but no studio would put money in a movie likely to be pointed out as North Korean propaganda.

You can start watching Crossing the Line for free in Youtube, here:

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