‘Kimjongilia’ puts a face on North Korea’s victims

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By Jesse Singal
Globe Correspondent / September 1, 2010

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In a world whose violent hot spots have mostly been YouTubed, Kim Jong Il’s walled-off villainy seems like a relic from the past. North Korea’s “Dear Leader’’ has created an almost completely closed state, wracked by famine and devoid of almost any functioning government services, where even the smallest perceived slight against him or the leadership can get citizens — and their families — banished to a network of concentration camps. It’s no surprise, then, that a reported 300,000 North Korean citizens have fled in the last decade.

“Kimjongilia’’ offers accounts from some of these defectors, who made harrowing journeys to escape one of the worst places on earth (not that crossing a border guarantees safety — China detains, tortures, and deports defectors). These accounts are interspersed with interludes explaining the history that led to the country’s current condition. All this is backed by striking artwork, photographs, and film clips from North Korea. (The videos of massive choreographed military and dance performances are particularly astonishing, given that North Korea can barely feed its soldiers.)

The film is weakest when it strays from its compelling source material. A pair of performers (Lee Seol Ae and Ahn Yumi) appear occasionally to augment the stories with interpretive dance. This mostly just distracts; when we’re shown the rules of a prison camp (“Any prisoner who does not do his best to complete the assigned work, will be presumed to have an attitude and will be executed by firing squad immediately’’), we also see the silhouette of one of the dancers wearing a uniform, bouncing around, even moonwalking, in front of what appear to be prison bars.

All the stories we hear are gripping, from that of the concert pianist who was reported to the authorities for playing music by a Frenchman, to the singer forced to deliver lines such as “How shall we spread this bountiful rice?’’ as she slowly starved. These accounts serve to put rare human faces on an often caricatured country.

Kim Jong Il is, of course, a cartoonish figure, and it’s hard not to ridicule the cult of personality built around him, given that he has let his nation disintegrate into a morass of famine and political paranoia. But lately outsiders are more likely to laugh at North Korea’s despotic head than to think about those who suffer under him, and “Kimjongilia’’ is a welcome and necessary antidote to that impulse.

Jesse Singal can be reached at


Written and directed by: N.C. Heikin

At: Museum of Fine Arts

Running time: 75 minutes


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