Duration: 94 minutes
Writer/Director: Eiji Han Shimizu
Starring: Joel Sutton, Michael Sasaki
By Caz Armstrong
Note this review contains some mild spoilers and reference to rape.
“True North” has the visual style of a PlayStation 2 cutaway scene from the early 2000s. Developed using survivor testimonies and ten years in the making, it is about growing up as a prisoner in a North Korean labour camp. It’s bleak, shocking and eye-opening. But the animation is atrocious, and one would hope it’s just a bold design choice rather than being unintentionally poor. Either way it’s certainly a very distinctive and important film which makes it definitely worth seeing.
A mother and her two young children Yo Han (voiced as an adult by Joel Sutton) and Mihi (listed in the credits as ‘anonymous’) are taken from their Pyongyang home in the middle of the night and transported directly to a labor camp for political prisoners. Suddenly faced with the specter of starving and abused people, the middle class family has to adjust quickly. They face an unknown future filled with horrifying conditions and intense physical labor.
As the children grow up in the camp they deal with death, torture, labor, starvation, sexual abuse and murder. It’s a horrific life but one with shades of compassion and community too which provide some glimmer of hope that the human spirit can, in some cases, be almost impossible to break.
The initial striking feature of the film is the early-CGI animation style. It’s a bold move which doesn’t particularly add anything but is at least very distinctive. It’s blocky and unnatural, providing neither nuance nor statement. It’s like watching a cutaway scene from a video game for 94 minutes. Such an approach might have worked better with some more powerfully framed shots or more subtle moments perhaps. The film is not without shocking imagery, after all death and abuse is rampant. But such shots are somehow diluted by the emotionless CGI faces and too-fluid physical movements.
“As an educational piece it is important…It’s heartbreaking to see such cruelty and how it turns desperate people against each other, all humanity stripped away.”
The English language dialogue spoken with strong American accents seems out of place, possibly even more so to non-American audiences for whom the accent is that much more foreign. Some Hollywood filmmaking tropes and vocal styles jar with the gritty premise of the story. And one moment of looking up with hope at the American symbol of an eagle flying overhead may induce some eye-rolling.
As an educational piece it is important. We see the kinds of conditions that political prisoners are currently held in, how they are treated and how they receive no trial or due process. It’s heartbreaking to see such cruelty and how it turns desperate people against each other, all humanity stripped away. But on the other hand there are expressions of great sacrifice and generosity too.
The choice to center the story on a young boy rather than his sister or mother is notable. He’s effectively told to become the ‘man of the house’ despite there being another adult available right there. Our protagonist is briefly lured by the tempting call of power and selfishness before learning the power of compassion.
Meanwhile the women already show heaps of compassion for its own sake, and the film does not explore whether gender-based conditioning or simply being pure of heart motivated their actions. They’re left as two-dimensional servants and we don’t even see any dilemma in the women’s selfless actions despite the desperate conditions and an every-person-for-themselves environment. They are not given the opportunity to show any personality beyond caring for others.
“The content of this film is very important and shocking, revealing North Korean atrocities that people risk their lives to even discuss. But the execution is distractingly poor even if that was entirely intentional.”
But the centering of the men goes as far as prioritizing their feelings over those of the victim when a loved one is raped. She is seen simply as the object of desire by a couple of men so we never get to see what the girl feels about being raped and how she copes longer term. Her boyfriend is overcome with anger and the desire for vengeance, taking charge of all of the resulting action before even bothering to comfort her.
Again and again films show us the effects of rape on the male friends, relations and lovers of the victims without the victim themselves having any agency around it or getting a chance to express their feelings in any way.
The content of this film is very important and shocking, revealing North Korean atrocities that people risk their lives to even discuss. But the execution is distractingly poor even if that was entirely intentional. The Americanisation is also jarring and the framing device, albeit based on reality, is flimsy enough to be near pointless.
However, I do recommend watching this unusual film because it is so unique. Just be aware of what you’re going in for.