American soldier turned North Korean citizen James Joseph Dresnok tells his story through the documentary film "Crossing the Line", by British filmmaker Daniel Gordon.
By Lee Hyo-won
North of the 38th parallel during the height of the Cold War, a blue-eyed American soldier becomes a movie star in the anti-American state. More than 40 years later, "Crossing the Line" reveals the extraordinary story of the G.I. turned North Korean citizen James Joseph Dresnok. "What I am about to tell you… I've never told anyone", begins the film.
Having suffered a terrible childhood and a failed marriage, Dresnok had little to look forward to. Army life at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ
) in South Korea was dead-end, and when he is about to get kicked out after breaching a regulation, he decides to cross the line.
British filmmaker Daniel Gordon chronicles this event that the United States had kept at a low profile. Dresnok was just one of the four American soldiers who defected to the North between 1962 and 1965. They all regretted their decision and tried to escape back, but they are "reeducated" and eventually endorse the culture and politics of the Stalinist state.
The Americans even become movie stars after starring in propaganda films directed by Kim Jong-il, who is well known to be a film buff. In an interview with The Korea Times during a recent visit here, the director said he gave the film's narrator, actor Christian Slater, the Dear Leader's books on acting and director as gifts.
The director started filming the documentary in 2004, featuring interviews with the two surviving defectors, Dresnok and Charles Robert Jenkins. "Crossing" is surprisingly amusing, and we see content Dresnok enjoying the small pleasures in everyday life, like fishing and bowling. The man has made a successful living there, with his children attending an elite university and himself occasionally teaching English. The viewer rediscovers Pyongyang from a different light.
Yet, you also see that while Dresnok has lived in North Korea for most of his life, he is disconnected from the rest of the country -- from all the poverty and human rights issues. "Crossing" is deeply saddled on irony, and a deep sense of tragedy looms over the many laughs in the film.
But after Jenkins manages to reunite with his Japanese wife in Japan, and publicize an extremely negative account of North Korean life, "Crossing" escalates into a war of words between the two. "I tried every possible channel to interview Jenkins but he adamantly refused", said the director.
With Dresnok and Jenkins giving contrasting testimonies, "It's up to the viewer to decide", said Gordon.
The BBC director had stunned the world with "The Game of Their Lives" (2002), for which he had won unprecedented access to the hermit state. His second film "A State of Mind" (2004) also won much acclaim in North Korea. Like his first two films, "Crossing" provides South Korea and the rest of the world a precious glimpse into one of the most enigmatic nations on Earth.
Such works remind viewers of the unnatural divide of a people, and educate the younger generation here. "In the North, if you ask any child what they're interested in, the first thing they would say is reunification (of the Koreas). In South Korea, it would be something like what color they'd like to dye their hair, maybe", said Gordon.
Over the course of crossing the 38th parallel, Gordon noticed that beneath superficial difference between the two nations, the Koreans on both sides of the DMZ
are "the same". Like "Crossing", Korean movies like "Joint Security Area" (2000) -- which Gordan said he loves -- and the recently released "Underground Rendez-vous
" keep history alive and draw distant places closer to us.