This review originally ran on Comics Bulletin.
Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2006's Crossing the Line directed by Daniel Gordon
Jason: The Korean War is the forgotten war of the 20th century for many of us in America, but it is not forgotten in the Korean Peninsula. The war wreaked horrible devastation throughout North and South Korea and created a pair of counties divided by a two-and-a-half zone of death called the DMZ. South Korea, America's ally, remained a capitalist democracy and has become a great force in world economics. North Korea, the ally of the Soviets, became a totalitarian Communist society where the populace serves the Great Leader and his successors and has struggled economically since the Korean War.
Only a handful of American soldiers defied American propaganda and crossed the DMZ to live in North Korea. One of those men was Private First Class James Joseph Dresnok, a giant of a man who gave up his personal problems and his boredom to try life in Korea. What he found there was intriguing. In some ways the country lived up to his stereotypes and in other ways it was quite different. That complexity is what makes Crossing the Line such an interesting documentary.
I've been vaguely fascinated with North Korea for a long time. That country seems so different and bizarre and alien to our way of doing things in the United States that I thought it hard to imagine any American choosing to give up the freedom that we all have in the West to move to one of the most totalitarian countries in the world. But Joe Dresnok chose to do exactly that during the height of the Cold War and three other men followed him across the DMZ.
If we are to believe the story told on the surface in this documentary, Dresnok somehow managed to find happiness in Korea that he could not find as an American. He was treated like a celebrity in North Korea, given extra food and rations, matched up with beautiful and exotic women and used as a tool in the North Korean propaganda machine.
But this film is also articulate in terms of what it does not say. We're only shown small hints about many aspects of Dresnok's life in North Korea. His first wife only received vague allusions and we're not clear how they connected or how the woman made it to North Korea. Was she kidnapped? Did Dresnok beat her?
Crossing the Line is absolutely firm in its attempts to tell Dresnok's story neutrally without judgment about any aspects of the story that is told. So viewers are asked to read between the lines and make up our own minds about the issues being presented and the stories being told. The title of this film can have a few different meanings, after all. Daniel, where did you see the line between truth and falsehood in this documentary?
Elkin: The line between truth and falsehood is always drawn by whoever has all power. The question is who has the power in this documentary, the subject, Joe Dresnok or the director, Daniel Gordon? Dresnok gives as much as he wants to give; Gordon frames the narrative how he feels it to be appropriate. As always, the truth is probably somewhere in between these two men’s narratives. Neither of which I ever want to hear narrated by Christian Slater again. But that’s another story altogether, isn’t it?
You mention that you’ve had a long-standing vague fascination with North Korea, Sacks, and you blame your intrigue on its “otherness.” I, too, have had a fascination with North Korea, but mine stems more existential crisis than from anything else.
Awhile back I wrote a review of another documentary about North Korea, this one about the Mass Games, called A State of Mind in which I wrote:
On a personal note, there are times where I find a totalitarian force controlling our lives and decision making a little appealing. So much of free will can be overwhelming. Our petty struggles to distinguish ourselves from the pack, our constant fascination with celebrity, our schadenfreude, our consumer culture, they all often wear me down to the quick as I consider what the future will bring for my young son. With the absence of free will, though, so many of these burdens are alleviated.
These thoughts still hold true for me today. There is something about the idea of giving up choice and personal freedom that is comforting somehow. Perhaps this is sort of the feeling that Joe Dresnok had when he walked into the DMZ in August of 1962. By that time all the promises of a life of self-actualization had failed him. Abandoned at every stage of his emotional life, he was looking for someone to embrace him. The military provided that father figure for a little while, but it was a contradictory and punitive parent encouraging both freedom and rigidity at the same time. It seems that this dichotomy was too much for Dresnok. The absence of individual will, the sublimation of the self into the collective, this was what he felt he needed. And thus he Crossed the Line.
Sure, it was uncomfortable at first. He even tried to leave. But eventually he decided to “learn and accept” – which led to the rest of his life, a life where he was treated with a modicum of respect and dignity, a life where he got to see his children grow and prosper, a life where he knew what to expect as much as what was expected of him.
But director Daniel Gordon doesn’t seem to want to dwell too much on that aspect of the story. Rather, he chose to spend much of the documentary exploring the interactions between Dresnok and the other three American defectors also living in Pyongyang, specifically the nature of the relationship between Dresnok and double defector Jenkins.
While exploring these relationships, I got the sense that Gordon was trying to assert his authorial control over Dresnok’s story and manipulate the narrative to make his own point. I think this is where you and I might disagree a bit about this documentary (are we becoming the “old bickering couple” of documentary reviewers, Sacks?).
Sacks: I'm not sure that we disagree that much about the documentary, really, Elkin, and I find your existential crisis fascinating – if that's not too offensive of me to say.
There is something really intriguing in the story of Dresnok casting away all that had screwed himself up in American society and instead finding great personal satisfaction in just letting go of much of his American individualism and allowing himself to be swept up in a society that values collectivism above all else. Dresnok's life in America caused him nothing but stress and pain, and endless string of disappointments and frustrations from his broken family life growing up to his bad marriage to his disappointing life in the Army.
In 1962 Dresnok was a man cast out involuntarily from the world that he grew up in. He simply could not find himself happy in Western society. And thus, as you say, he Crossed the Line.
And Dresnok certainly seems happy in his life today, very much the picture of the contented older man that we see quite movingly at the end of the film. But I can't help but to shake the feeling that much was left out of this movie in the attempt to convince the North Korean government to allow this picture to be made. There are too many allusions to strange and suspicious events in Dresnok's history that are just not examined in this film. It’s a little too pat, too clean a story, too simple. Everybody's life has edges, even if that edge is just the wish to escape our American freedoms for just a little while, and Dresnok's life has more edges than most people.
But we just don't see those edges as much as I wish we could. There are only small allusions to the great North Korean famine of the 1990s, for instance, particularly in reference to how Dresnok and his fellow defectors never stopped being fed. There's a whole movie in the exploration of that story, and it's barely mentioned in this film.
So where you complain about Daniel Gordon exerting his authorial control over Dresnok's story, I wish he'd gone further. I wish we'd heard a bit more of the complex truth. What we have in this film is fine and interesting and the way it avoids talking about topics is just as revealing as the way it does talk about topics. But I wish those topics had been a bit more overt.
Or is that an individualistic American way of looking at it?
Elkin: It may be. Through much of this film, especially during the tedious parts narrated by a seemingly just-woken-up Christian Slater, I got the sense that Gordon assumes that his audience wants him to tell them that everything the North Koreans do is nefarious. This seems to me to cloud the narrative, which I didn’t see as being objective at all.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m relatively certain that the North Korean government is capable of doing some pretty nefarious stuff. Kidnapping foreign nationals, allowing hundreds of thousands of people in their country to starve, acting as an agent provocateur in the region just for shits and giggles, these are not the workings of a government focused on human rights and world peace. And they certainly took advantage of Dresnok and the other American defectors for propaganda purposes. Not only did they use him to try to entice other soldiers to defect across the DMZ, they made him a film star in epic anti-American movies. Am I right that Dresnok’s character in the 20 part Unsung Heroes was named Arthur Cockstud because if it was, you gotta admit that’s kinda genius.
The fact that the North Koreans even let Dresnok be interviewed for this film shows that they still value him for propaganda purposes.
Still, there is the possibility that Dresnok is truly happy with the life he has found for himself in the DPRK, and as much as Gordon tries to be objective about that, all the other pieces of the film work against that narrative. You say that his simple happiness seems too pat, too clean a story. Perhaps that is just you falling for Gordon’s version of the truth?
Sacks: I am definitely willing to concede that Dresnok does seem truly happy with the state of his life at the end of this film. And why shouldn't he, I guess. He seems content in his third marriage, has kids that obviously make him happy and has been treated extremely well by the government of North Korea.
My question really is about the cost that Dresnok's happiness came with. The thing that you found so tiresome in the movie is precisely the thing that I'd like to learn more about. I want to know more about the context of Dresnok's life. I want to learn whether his kids were used for propaganda and I want to learn the secrets of his first wife and I also want to learn about less nefarious aspects of life in North Korea. How does an ordinary person live and how does that contrast with the life that Dresnok lives? Toward the end we see Joe and his family living in a tiny little apartment; is that representative of how most people live or is that actually better than most people?
I'm not looking for nefarious ends by North Korea, just the opposite. One of my favorite cartoonists, Guy Delisle, has a terrific book¸ Pyongyang, about his time in North Korea, and I enjoyed how Delisle cut through the clichés and allowed readers to see the positive and negative aspects of this fascinating country through the eye of Delisle's personal experiences in that country. It was both subjective and objective and therefore gave a three dimensional view of DPRK.
I wanted a bit more of the ordinary in this movie. I wanted more than just a portrait of Joe Dresnok; I wanted more of a portrait of the country that gave me more reason to find an interesting perspective.
This was an interesting movie and never dragged for me. I thought Dresnok was an interesting character, and the stories of his fellow defecting Americans was also interesting. But I wanted it to be just a bit more exotic, I guess. I wanted a bit more of the strange.
Or are my opinions just strange, Elkin? I don't think I drank the anti-DPRK kool-aid.
Elkin: I love Delisle’s Pyongyang as well, which I agree presented a far more complete view of North Korea than Crossing the Line did. I would also point you to the documentary I mentioned earlier, A State of Mind, which is a highly controlled look at the lives of the North Koreans fortunate enough to live in Pyongyang and be tools of the regime. The gymnasts in this film also live in an apartment that looks eerily similar to the one Dresnok inhabits with his family.
You might also want to watch The Vice Guide to North Korea to get an even more bizarre take on the country and its people.
Ultimately, though, I guess I just don’t know. When I watch films about the DPRK, I know that there is a certain editorial constraint under which they are filmed. But there is also a conviction in the people who are the subjects of these documentaries. Some of that fervor has to come from true belief, not coercion or fear. It’s a form of faith, a form of passion, and it is, to an extent, rather admirable to witness. How are the North Koreans who have dedicated their lives to serving the regime any different than Christians who have given their entire sense of self over to serving Jesus, or Hasidic Jews who dedicate themselves to the study of Talmic law, or that guy who would go to any length to complete his full run of Morrison’s Doom Patrol?
Wait … Did I just compare Kim Jong Un to Grant Morrison? Am I saying that fidelity to a dictator is a form of fandom?
My nut may have finally cracked, Sacks. Sorry.
I guess maybe the weight of the myriad of choices I get to make on a daily basis in a free society has begun to wear me down. A matter of fact, I am still second-guessing the particular choice of Greek style yogurt I made from the 23 different brands I could choose from. When the checkout dude asked if I was using debit or credit, I almost started screaming.
I’ll give you the last word on this one, my friend. I’m tired. I want to lie down. I wonder what is on the 327 different channels I get to choose from on the TV.
Trailer for the film (which makes it seem like an entirely different film than what we watched):
Jason Sacks is Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @jasonsacks, email him email@example.com or friend him on Facebook.
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