Flicks - Runaway Train
A passionate call for action, the documentary Seoul Train reveals how North Korean refugees living in China are caught between a hard place and a worse place. North Korea suffers from a brutal dictatorship and massive famine, but if its freedom-seeking citizens illegally make their way to China, the communist authorities will arrest and deport them back home, where defection is a capital offense.
Documentarians Jim Butterworth, Aaron Lubarsky and Lisa Sleeth estimate that 200,000 North Korean refugees live in China. Seoul Train provides snapshots of an "underground railroad" created by multinational activists to spirit these refugees to a safer country. At times shocking, Seoul Train is a testament to the power and portability of modern-day filmmaking. Footage smuggled from North Korea (where the cameraman would've been summarily executed) shows ghastly starvation victims. Weary, desperate refugees tersely explain their plight on-camera in temporary Chinese safe houses.
Despite North Korea's monstrous policies, Seoul Train devotes most of its outrage to the Chinese government. One shocking sequence shows an asylum-seeking family (including a 2-year-old girl) being manhandled by Chinese police at the gate of the Japanese Embassy. Later, an icy diplomat explains China's Orwellian policy to define any refugees as job-seeking "economic migrants," no matter how dire their situation.
Seoul Train proves more effective in airing its issues than in profiling the people involved. We often want to know more about Seoul Train's heroes, like Pastor Chun Ki Won, whom the English-speaking activists compare to a figure from a spy thriller. Early on, we follow Chun's efforts to shepherd a North Korean group through the Mongolian border - but then he falls out of the film's sight, and Seoul Train never fills in his background or details his accomplishments.
Most of Seoul Train's limitations come from necessity: People on the run don't have the luxury of extensive on-camera interviews, which could literally jeopardize their lives if seen by the wrong eyes. Seoul Train nevertheless speaks with undeniable passion and presents some stranger-than-fiction twists: one North Korean family's unexpected happy ending offers the proverbial exception that proves the rule.
? ? ? ? ?Seoul Train plays Sun., June 12, 1 p.m., at the Atlanta-Fulton Central Library, 1 Margaret Mitchell Square. 404-730-1700. www.atlantafilmfestival.com.