In northern China, freedom is a booming business. After fleeing from the inhumane conditions of North Korea himself in 2001, Dragon now makes a lucrative living there as a "broker," helping others to complete their circuitous journey—in many cases—to South Korea. Ann Shin's documentary, The Defector: Escape from North Korea is a first-hand account of how that arduous trip is exceedingly long, expensive and fraught with peril.
The two women the film follows, Sook-Ja and Yong-Hee, have already both experienced considerable trials and tribulations when we meet them in China. Sook-Ja has recently crossed the Tumen River, as most defectors do, and has not heard from her sister since she made her own escape seven years ago. Meanwhile, Yong-Hee was kidnapped in China after crossing the border, before being sold and forced to marry under threat of death.
With the constant worry of detection looming, a possibility that would see the two of them repatriated back to North Korea and surely relegated to the most inhospitable of fates, Dragon arranges their travel first to Laos and finally to Thailand. It's here that the two women can gain the necessary refugee status to make their way to South Korea. Through interviews carefully interspersed along the way, the horrific conditions of their home country are illuminated in startling detail.
What truly fascinates in outlining Dragon's role, and the networks he represents, is the grey morality involved in the operation. Though he may be a human rights activist, as he describes himself, in helping those like Sook-Ja and Yong-Hee in finding a better life, the reality is that he is also operating a business and would not be doing this for free. Similarly, Yong-Hee is conflicted, expressing remorse and sadness that the husband she abandoned will now be forced to purchase a new wife.
One of the drawbacks accompanying the need for secrecy in covertly making such a film is that almost all of the subjects have understandably asked that their faces be blurred in some manner, resulting in an unavoidable loss of immediacy. To counteract this, Shin practically makes obfuscation a running visual motif, tapping into the inherent thrill of being privy to information others would prefer remained classified.
In crafting such an effective and engaging piece of embedded journalism, she has helped to expose not only the lives of those seeking a second chance but the market that exists in pushing those unfortunate souls in the right direction. (Fathom Film Group)