Kimjongilia / N.C. Heikin / USA, S. Korea, France
In the wake of yet another empty exercise of aggression from North Korea, it's difficult not to look at Kimjongilia, the directorial debut from N.C. Heikin, through unfairly expectant eyes. This mentally ill dictator has murdered hundreds of thousands of people, wrecked havoc on Asia's stability and could do untold further damage to the world before he passes on to the next life. But because he is short, has a funny hairstyle and orchestrates propaganda efforts that are patently absurd to outsiders, Kim Jong-il is depicted more like a cartoon character than the very real menace that he is.
Which is what makes a film like Kimjongilia a bit frustrating. Made over the course of 10 years, the first half of the film focuses on cataloging horrific personal stories and then shifts gears, focusing on prison camps where people are held indeterminately for vague or undefined crimes. The two sections are hinged together with a very smart, animated timeline providing an overview of Korean history.
Interesting geopolitical implications abound. North Korea is a country where the majority of people live below the poverty line. Yet its citizens produce countless luxury items, which are then exported to countries who condemn North Korea at G8 conferences while happily buying their leather shoes and paper flower arrangements at bargain prices.
Despite a demonstrated level of research and care, the film struggles to balance seriousness, emotional engagement and a self-conscious need to be artistic. Traditional Korean dance, intercut with personal and historical accounts shared through voiceover, feels like a clumsy attempt at cultural tie-in. B-roll footage of exuberant mourning after the death of Kim il-Song (Jong-il's father), juxtaposed with survivors’ descriptions of state-sponsored lies is also problematic. It suggests that the people of North Korea who have avoided imprisonment or been unable to leave are just foolish believers of a lunatic messiah.
Heikin employs a smarter, gentler touch than the "gonzo documentary film-makers" who will endure the risks of going to regions of extreme repression but produce narratives that flop around like dead fish. She has clearly put great care into finding her interview subjects and earning enough trust for them to go on-camera with their dangerous and heartbreaking stories. The stories in Kimjongilia makes the film worth seeking out, even if the inexperienced film-making makes it difficult to recommend.
Kimjongilia plays at the San Francisco International Film Festival which runs April 23 - May 7.