Crossing the Line
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An unforgettable documentary (New York Daily News), Crossing the Line is the absolutely fascinating (Hollywood Reporter) story of James Joseph Dresnok, a US Army private who in 1962 stunned the world by walking across the violently contested DMZ that cuts Korea in two and defecting to the communist North. Taking full advantage of access granted by the government of North Korea, the axis of evil s mysterious and feared rogue state, director Daniel Gordon (The Game of Their Lives, A State of Mind) combines historical footage with contemporary interviews to both uncover the Kim-Jong Il regime and end 44 years of secrecy and rumor by allowing Dresnok to tell his own story. Despite spending more than half his life living, working, and raising a family in North Korea, Comrade Joe, as Western media dubbed Dresnok when he walked into infamy at the height of the Cold War, remains a man of eternally divided loyalties. From his appalling childhood in a rural 1950 s Virginia foster home, to interviews with his fellow GI s, to amazing footage (New York Post) of Dresnok playing the villain in Kim-Jong Il s personally produced propaganda films, Crossing the Line makes an already compelling story even more so (Hollywood Reporter) by intimately revealing a character worthy of Werner Herzog s delusional hero-victims (New York Sun).
A State of Mind, British filmmaker Daniel Gordon's excellent 2003 documentary about North Korea, was billed as "a complex exploration of one of the world's most closed nations." Released in 2008, Gordon's Crossing the Line addresses the same subject from a very different point of view: that of one James Joseph Dresnok, a U.S. Army private who, while stationed in the Demilitarized Zone that separates that country from its neighbor to the south in 1962, abruptly decided to defect. It's a strange and fascinating tale, all the more so because much of it is told by "Comrade Joe" himself. Dresnok wasn't the first American soldier to defect; nor was he the last (a total of four young men crossed over between '62 and '65), or the most notorious (Charles Robert Jenkins made international headlines when he and his Japanese-born wife left North Korea in 2004; that same year he turned himself in to an American military base in Japan and was sentenced to 30 days for desertion). The other two defectors are now dead, but Dresnok is still in Pyongyang, married to a Korean-Togolese woman (his second wife) and the father of three children. Indeed, he calls it home, and says he has "never regretted" going there, despite the fact that North Korea is, as the documentary puts it, "the most inaccessible, anti-American country in the world." Director Gordon makes liberal and artful use of file footage and photos (including many vintage shots of the four Americans; they also appear in clips from Nameless Heroes, a '78 propaganda film that cast them as wretchedly evil Capitalists), and while a variety of others are interviewed, including both Koreans and Americans, it's Dresnok himself who is consistently riveting. His protestations to the contrary notwithstanding (he vehemently defends his adopted country against accusations made by Jenkins and others), this is a man who is clearly rather conflicted; now in his mid-'60s, he cries freely while recalling his early life and viewing old footage supplied by the filmmakers. Christian Slater provides the voice-over narration for this remarkable DVD, which includes still photos and an interview with the director among its bonus features. --Sam GrahamSee all Editorial Reviews
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Mr.Dresnok, living in Pyongyang since 1962, does the narrative himself. He comes across as a convivial, honest, lying, brutal character, you name it, and saddened beyond repair. "You do not like fishing?", a North Korean sitting next to him at the river remarks casually, causing Mr.Dresnok to ever so slightly draw a hasty cigarette drag.
There it is, the truth of a squandered life in an alien country. The Korean angler sensed it.
There is a certain twisted authenticity to him, a bullyish bonhomy that makes him look almost great to have a beer with at a sports bar at one moment, and look sadistic without further advance notice the next, with nothing but just seconds to spare inbetween.
The famous defector foe/friend (it's hard to tell at times) Robert Jenkins, now relocated to Japan, gets an earful from Mr.Dresnok for having spilled some truths. At that moment, Mr.Dresnok's outrage is a staged emotion, given the Party cadre sitting next to him. The documentary seems to not be entirely fair and balanced on this particular subject, although it serves as an interesting "audio et altera pars" to Mr.Jenkins' autobiography.
Mr.Dresnok, though, knows what his former rocky yet close relationship to the re-defected defector Jenkins calls for: some harsh words, that come across as totally insincere. In the end, this unhappy man is a simple soul who turned himself in for life at a moment's whim.
He genuinely loves his likeable grown-up son who has "Richmond, VA Caucasian college student" written all over his face, yet does barely speak English with a pronounced Korean accent and is going to be, of all choices, a North Korean diplomat.
Mr.Dresnok would also love to see his native Virginia one more time. He probably won't. He chokes up when the British filmmaker presents him with contemporary images of his childhood town, and lets him watch a Quicktime movie on an Apple notebook of former friends talking about him. Apart from his love for his family, that is the only genuine deep emotion Mr.Dresnok allows himself to show.
An excellent documentary about the strangest of fates young men can visit upon themselves.
Although it does mention four known defectors, the main emphasis is on Joseph Dresnok (aka Comrade Joe). Possibly because he is the last known one to still be there.
It profiles a great deal of his life before and after he "crossed the line" into North Korea. The footage of South Korea and North Korea is remarkable and both countries are dealt with a large amount of respect. Also the rare North Korean film clips along with the everyday life in North Korea are also remarkable.
This film is utterly fascinating and absolutely worth your time. Even if you don't know much about North Korea it is still worthwhile viewing purely because of the bizarre set of circumstances that led this American to live his life in the DPRK and the life he has subsequently lived. Highly recommended!