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Defector: Escape from North Korea, The
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by Jay Seaver

"True-life thriller."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON: "The Defector" is a documentary adventure of sorts - it embeds the filmmakers and audience in a situation that has very real danger as things happen, rather than having the filmmakers dig up what they can later. Sure, it's not a big action-movie sort of adventure, but there's plenty of very real tension as a group of North Korean defectors make a 3,000-mile trip to escape to the South.

Such a long trip may seem unnecessary, but the border between the two Koreas is the most guarded frontier in the world, effectively impassable. So what's more common is for people to escape to Yanji in northern China, take the highway via Xian to Kunming, where they can sneak into Laos, cross the mountains on foot, and finally make it to Chiyachi, Thailand, where they can apply for political asylum in various countries. They can't do that alone, obviously, which is why there are brokers such as "Dragon", who escaped North Korea in 2001 and has helped about 500 since. This group includes Sook-ja, who is seeking her missing sister, and Yong-hee, who was kidnapped by human traffickers eight years previous and sold as a mail-order bride.

Ann Shin's film can't quite be a narrative film with real people, for a number of reasons. What would be plot threads in a feature inevitably sputter out unresolved here, and conflict between the subjects will often result not in great cinema but significantly reduced access for the filmmaker. Safety concerns mean that Shin and her crew (presumably just cinematographer Stephen Chung) cannot accompany the defectors on the trek through Laos, which is potentially the most cinematic leg of the journey. And while she does well with recreations when they're necessary, moments when she states her emotions in voiceover because it was prudent to hide them while she was filming are somewhat flat.

Despite all that, it's frequently an exciting trip; the dangers that the defectors face and that the filmmakers necessarily share are laid out clearly and captured fairly well for as much as Shin must often use disguised cameras or narrate what happened after-the-fact. There's suspense to be mined from wondering just how trustworthy this Dragon fellow really is, and while waiting for vans and knowing when Chinese authorities are most likely to perform spot checks on the highway may not sound like exciting tradecraft, those details wind up being surprisingly engrossing.

Detail is what makes The Defector fascinating to watch more often than not; Shin fits in a fair number of facts that audiences might not realize, such as how roughly 80% of all defectors from North Korea are women, without often running down a blind alley that's not particularly interesting or leaving any facet of the process under-examined. The movie is only about seventy minutes long, and a viewer will seldom go very long without learning something new or seeing those facts given practical application.

For obvious reasons, the interview subjects are not always particularly forthcoming - Dragon is, after all, a wanted criminal within China and the defectors fear reprisals against their families. Still, even with their faces obscured and their voices altered (though at times I wondered if someone in North Korea with time and facial reconstruction software could do something with what Shin leaves visible), they manage to be intriguing people. It's interesting to watch Dragon alternately try to sell Shin on his altruism and engage in the sort of pragmatic decisions that keep the enterprise going (including being a bit of a stickler about his fee), for instance, while Yong-hee can't seem to help but worry about what her Chinese husband will think of her abandoning him.

It seems strange, but then again, not so much. "The Defector" has the plot of a fictional thriller but the people in it are often as perfectly ordinary in their natures as they may be surprisingly brave in their actions. As much as pieces may be missing and results may not be what one hopes, it's a rather inspiring reminder of how far people will go for a better life, even if it seems fairly close for those of us who have it already.

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originally posted: 05/08/13 13:00:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.

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Directed by
  Ann Shin

Written by
  Manfred Becker
  Ann Shin


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