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Crossing The Line

The issue of access raises some troubling questions in Daniel Gordon's Crossing The Line, for subject and filmmaker alike. After making two documentaries about North Korea—2002's The Game Of Their Lives, about the national soccer team's stunning upset of the Italians in the 1966 World Cup, and 2004's A State Of Mind, about two preteen gymnasts preparing for a synchronized spectacle called the "Mass Games"—Gordon earned the government's trust enough to snag an even bigger exclusive. For the first time in 45 years, American-born soldier James Dresnok, who successfully crossed the DMZ and defected to North Korea during the war, was available for interviews. It's an enormous scoop for a Western filmmaker, but a potentially compromising one, too. How much can a filmmaker challenge the dubious elements of Dresnok's story? At what point can the film be considered an unwitting propaganda tool for an oppressive, totalitarian system?

Gordon's solution—really the only one available—is to work hard at playing a neutral party, which in this case means giving Dresnok a lot of rope and letting viewers decide whether he's hung himself with it. As a result, Crossing The Line lacks the force and power of a strong point of view, but like Gordon's other work about North Korea, it succeeds in revealing what it means for individuals to give themselves over to a collective. For Dresnok, that submission meant gaining a family he never had in America. Raised in Virginia as an orphan, Dresnok never graduated high school, and he served a tour in the Korean War before coming home to find his wife had taken a lover. Still reeling from their painful separation, he reenlisted and returned for a second tour in Korea, where his loneliness and disenfranchisement led him to betray his country.

In the interest of objectivity, Gordon never puts too fine a point on Dresnok's blinkered myopia, but certain statements are telling. For example, when Dresnok talks about the "Arduous March"—a half-decade famine that killed hundreds of thousands (if not millions) during the mid-to-late '90s—he says that he never stopped receiving his rations, and that the government will always take care of him. For his part, Dresnok has happily allowed his celebrity status in North Korea to be exploited for political purposes, whether he's shouting slogans into loudspeakers blasting over the DMZ or appearing as an American heavy in anti-U.S. movies. Crossing The Line finds Dresnok well-fed and cared-for; if others aren't so lucky, that's their problem.

Filed Under: Film

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