Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Perfecto Defecto Doc

Crossing the Line (2006)
directed by Daniel Gordon

Last night I watched the Sundance Channel's Doc Block and was fascinated by something called Crossing the Line, an intriquing political documentary narrated by Christian Slater about a U.S. Army defector who in 1962 abandoned his country to become a citizen of North Korea. In 2006, more than four decades after crossing the border at the height of the Cold War, former Pfc. James Dresnok tells his story in the decidely un-cosmopolitan city of Pyongyang, where he insists he loves his "simple life." Known as "Comrade Joe," Dresnok is the last American G.I. defector still living in the North, and the doc traces the roots of that decision back to his hardluck history: a Richmond, Virginia-born orphan abandoned first by his mother and then by his father, a foster home runaway, an illiterate high school drop-out who turned to the U.S. Army as a way out, only to loathe military service and have his heart broken by a wife who divorced him while he was overseas. In Korea's Demilitarized Zone - a 2-mile wide swathe of trigger-happy tension that Bill Clinton once called "the scariest place on Earth " - Dresnok went AWOL to hook up with his prostitute sweetie ("In Korea, I made up for all that time I stayed true to my wife when stationed in Germany" Dresnok beams unabashedly); facing a potential court-martial, he walked the line - to the North.

For a guy with an obvious antipathy towards authority and authority figures, Dresnok ironically sought refuge in the world's most authoritarian regime. His only companions there were three other U.S. Army defectors: Pvt. Larry A. Abshier of Urbana, Illinois (who the U.S. military says went missing from his unit in May 1962 at age 19) and Cpl. Jerry W. Parrish of Morganfield, Kentucky (who deserted in December 1963 at age 19) - both now deceased - and Charles Jenkins of Rich Square, North Carolina (the last American to defect, in 1965). Jenkins gained international attention via his wife Hitomi Soga, whom he married two years after she was kidnapped from Japan - along with her mother - by North Korean agents in 1978 (during the heyday of North Korean abductions of Japanese, 1977-1983); she was allowed to return home to Japan in 2002 along with other Japanese who had been abducted, and in 2004 Jenkins rejoined her (via Indonesia, and then serving time for his U.S. Army desertion) in Japan, where in 2005 he published a book in Japanese about his experiences in North Korea called Romaji: kokuhaku (To Tell the Truth). (A Korean-language edition was also released in June 2006, while an English language version, titled The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea, was released for publication by the University of California Press on March 1, 2008.) Jenkins also bears an uncanny resemblance to former U.S. presidential candidate Ross Perot.

Crossing the Line may represent the first time Comrade Joe's told his story, but it isn't his first time in front of a camera. Beginning in 1978, Dresnok was cast in several North Korean films (and they're a quite a few of them - don't forget Kim Jong-il is a movie nut!), including the 20-part series Unsung Heroes, in which he portayed an American villain (what else?), and became a celebrity in the country as a result. He is called "Arthur" by his Korean friends, as that is the name of the character he played in the series. (Charles Jenkins also appears in the film as Dr. Kelton, the fictional mastermind of the Korean war.) And, hard as it is to imagine, Comrade Joe comes off as a likeable guy. He comes across as a big, dumb hick who's had some hard knocks in life but who is completely natural and straight-shooting. And his Korean language skills are impressive (though what else are you gonna do in a culturally deprived land but learn the native tongue and drink soju?) His defection has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with his broken home upbringing; no one loved him, so he sought affection in the most unloved place on Earth, a place with nothing but structure and the most patriarchal Father Figure of them all, "The Great Leader." Still, when he looks at old pictures of himself growing up in Richmond, Virginia, he weeps. He may have never read Thomas Wolfe, but he knows damned well that You Can't Go Home Again. So he fills his days fishing and drinking soju (Korean potato vodka - and he sure can put it away!).

Touching as that is, the creepiest aspect of the film is the suggestion that the DPRK authorities wanted the American defectors to breed children - all with non-Korean women, mind you - to create non-Asian looking stooges they could send out into the world for espionage. Dresnok deflects detailed inquiries about his first wife (a Romanian woman rumored to have been kidnapped) while his second is Tongolese (and seems be to mentally handicapped). The other soldiers married (or were "given") a Lebanese woman (also rumored to be kidnapped), an Eastern European (probably kidnapped - c'mon, who voluntarily goes to North Korea?), and the aforementioned kidnapped Japanese citizen Hitomi Saga.

Crossing the Line played at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, where it got a lot of attention, but I didn't realize until Sundance's telecast was over that it was by Daniel Gordon. I should have known, since this is his area of expertise. And it was yet another collaboration with his co-producer Nick Bonner, whose Q&A about the film at a Beijing bookstore was posted on YouTube.


Brit documentary filmmaker Daniel Gordon is one of the few people who've been afforded a glimpse into the inaccessible land known in the West as "North Korea," which is laughingly/oxymoronically also known as The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The Game of Their Lives (2002)
First there was his sports doc The Game of Their Lives (2002) about the North Korean soccer team's surprisingly good showing in the 1966 World Cup, where they upset Italy 1-0 on a goal by Corporal Pak Doo-Ik to reach the quarterfinals before losing to a Eusebio-led Portugal side 5-3 (after leading 3-0 in the first 20 minutes!) - the first time an Asian squad had advanced that far in a World Cup. The Game of Their Lives won the 2003 Royal Television Society award for best sports documentary, first prize at the Seville Film Festival, and was nominated for Best Documentary nomination at the British Independent Film Awards. It came about in collaboration with travel specialist Nicholas Bonner, who facilitated bringing the seven surviving members of the 1966 North Korean national football team to Britain.

North Korea's on its way to South Africa in 2010

By the way, this year North Korea's team qualified for the upcoming 2010 World Cup for the first time since 1966; since the South Korean - aka Republic of Korea - team had already qualified, it marks a milestone: the first time that the two Koreas will be represented at the World Cup (as close to a "unified" Korean as one can get - thank you, The Beautiful Game). Not that there will be any love lost between the two fierce rivals; in the lead-up to a recent World Cup qualifying match against South Korea, North Korea accused rival South Korea of poisoning its players with “adulterated foodstuff” - adding indigestion to the indignation of losing that match 1-0. (Sounds like sore losers to me!)

Pardon the digression, but I find the North Korean soccer team a source of endless fascination, from the barred-window buses that transport their fans to away matches (surprising in itself since almost all North Koreans are barred from having international passports), to the black-suited officials monitoring the patriotism of the fans in the DPRK booster areas during those away games (where women are segregated from the men and all the Koreans wear badges bearing a picture of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il), to the team's ultra-conservative, fear-of-losing-face playing style that mirrors their country's fear-driven national identity. There's a great article about the team in the Summer 2009 issue of World Soccer magazine (www.worldsoccer.com) appropriately called "Secret Empire."

My half-Japanese girlfriend Amy will probably be interested to learn that the star of the North Korean team, Jong Tae-Se, was born in Nagoya, Japan (to second generation Korean parents) and is the only DPRK footballer to play in Japan's J. League (for Kawasaki Frontale); he holds dual citizenship in North Korea and Japan. Even more surprisingly, another Japanese-born Korean player (or Zainichi), Ahn Young-Hak, plies his trade for K-League side Suwon Samsung Bluewings south of the 38th Parallel in the detested rival state of South Korea. The only other footballer to play outside the DPRK is Hong Yong-jo, who plays for Russian club Rostov. Hong and Jong led the team in scoring during the World Cup qualification competition. Needless to say, North Korea's team kits are made by their BFF across the border in China.

A State of Mind (2004)
Gordon followed up his soccer doc with what is arguably his best work, 2004's A State of Mind - another collaboration with Nicholas Bonner - which followed two North Korean schoolgirl gymnasts (Pak Hyon Sun and Kim Song Yon) and their families for over eight months during training for the 2003 Pyongyang Mass Games honoring "The Great Leader" Kim Jong-Il. The Mass Games, in and of themselves, are pretty amazing and the most complex, mass synchronized human orchestration I had seen up until the Zhang Yimou-directed 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. More importantly, it offered a glimpse into the daily lives and routines of a society that 24/7 had to keep a state-run radio on in every home, and non-stop adulation - via statues, banners, memorials, badges, songs, dances - of "The Great Leader." Unbelievable.

See also the official A State of Mind web site and the BBC's interview with the filmmakers.

A State of Mind trailer:


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