Review of “Crossing the Line”
The Bookworm bookstore, Chengdu, China
October 29, 2007
“Crossing the Line,” screened as part of the Bookworm’s North Korea documentary film series, a finalist at the 2006 Sundance festival, provides a thoughtful, stylish portrait of the last remaining American defector still residing in North Korea. James Dresnok, a colorful man who deserted the U.S. Army in 1962 and has never left North Korea since, provides an engaging character study, at equal turns ominous and humorous, set against the backdrop of the sole, final Communist hold-out nation of this post-Cold War era, one whose narrow depiction in Western media makes this documentary’s refreshingly average depiction so revelatory.
Dresnok, an orphaned child with a heavy chip on his shoulder, chose to defect more through a combination of anti-authority foolishness and hopelessness at his own situation, rather than any overt political leanings. He slowly learned to live in North Korean society, along with three other American defectors, and the four became movie celebrities in the country’s homogenous society after playing the roles of Western villains and espionage heroes on North Korea’s silver screen. Dresnok’s personal life is quite interesting: his first wife in Korea (an unidentified European) bore him two Caucasian sons , thoroughly North Korean-cultured sons (one of whom is training to be a diplomat), and his current wife is the offspring of a Togolese diplomat and a Korean woman.
The story reaches a steam when Dresnok and the only remaining American defector, Charles Jenkins, with whom it is evident Dresnok does not get along, reach political loggerheads. Jenkins, whose wife was kidnapped off of a Japanese island by North Koreans in a bizarre spy-training mission, made worldwide headline news in the mid-nineties when he provided a dramatic DPRK-bashing testimony after agreeing to extradition, some 40 years after defection. He ended up serving a mere 30 days in American prison, and is now a farmer in Japan. Dresnok, who claims that Jenkins’ claims were almost all falsified, provides a critical, alternate Western voice that presents North Korea as a much more reasonable, kind state, at least by his own experiences. To the credit of the filmmakers, “Crossing the Line” offers an illuminating, personal tone that manages to remain as impartial as a documentary of this nature could hope to be.
Cinematographer Nick Bennett employs a clean, always interesting eye that he trains on everything from Pyongyang’s deserted, Socialist-grey highways to candid conversations between Dresnok and his fellow aged Korean fishing buddies and trips to Pyongyang’s only bowling alley. Peter Haddon’s editing effectively balances live interview scenes with a wealth of fascinating archival footage, providing a meaningful historical anchor point for Dresnok’s story against the rise of a truly distinct, sheltered society. Anti-American propaganda imagery, intimate Korean war scenes and, most fascinating of all, rare footage of North Korean master director Kim Jong-Il’s 1970s 20-part epic, “Nameless Heroes” present a visual accompaniment which keeps “Crossing the Line” riveting, despite the ebbs and flows of the defector’s tale.
Following the screening, film researcher Simon Cockerell, who also runs Koryo Tours, a North Korean tour service, answered questions. Having been to North Korea 59 times, he provided an informed, well-balanced take on the country and its citizens’ attitudes, covering everything from the availability of Sprite, though not Coke (Oh, the wonders of brand diversification!) to the citizen’s sentiments towards their government (its much more favorable than Westerners would fathom).
“The most important thing in their eyes is that the (North Korean) government has successfully maintained the country’s independence in the face of adversarial pressure from Western adversarial powers,” Simon explained. “They honestly believe that South Korea has simply sold out to the dollar.”
The most important aspect of both “Crossing the Line” and the subsequent discussion, I would posit, is not so much the political side-taking and prophesizing it inevitably leads to as it is the opening up of marginalized, grassroots voices that provide a freshly firsthand viewpoint. Western journalists have gone to town on Kim Jong-Il and North Korea as a whole for decades, continually writing it off, alternating between tones of utter ridicule and spite to false pathos and resignation. I’m certainly not claiming that such depictions are entirely false, but active debate in foreign policy should always be informed by as numerous, involved and varied sources as possible, something that is all too scarce in the way we debate how the West deals with North Korea, amongst other countries considered to be “foreign threats.”
“Those poor, starving North Koreans and their crazy leader,” would sum up the perspective Western media tidily hands us, as we debate nuclear reactor deals through tales of mass famine and disconcerting, militant public parade.
“Crossing the Line”, along with its unique, 6 foot 8, 350 pound subject matter, is important in that it shows North Koreans diving into an Olympic pool, celebrating birthdays, smiling, even joking. These are very small, unextraordinary things. But they are powerful, necessary images, forcing we Western viewers to take a more open look at this country’s people, and to question the rhetoric our governments (theirs and our own) feed us regarding weapons and war.