Dir. Daniel Gordon. UK. 2006. 91mins.
Perfectly timed to reach Pusanjust as current tensions with North Korean increase once more, Crossing The Linepromises more than it can deliver. The story of former US soldier James Joseph Dresnok, 44 years after he left the American dream andsettled in Pyongyang, DanielGordon's documentary fails to offer any new significant angle on the littlethat is known about life in one of the world's most secluded countries.
Made by the BBC in the besttradition of its thoroughly researched, deftly organised documentaries, itshould have no problem so far as TV sales are concerned, while festivals willtake note, given the current political crisis. But hopes of crossing over intotheatrical screenings seem dim.
James Dresnokwas born in Virginia and abandoned by his parents. Brought up as a poorlyeducated orphan, he joined the army when he was 17, lookingfor a home he never had before. He married in uniform and was sent for a coupleof years to Germany only to return to find his wife already in somebody else'sarms.
Dresnok re-enlisted, despite his disappointment with armylife, and was sent to Korea in 1962 to serve on the highly sensitive borderzone. While there he fell for a girl servicing American soldiers, but when hevisited her once too often was threatened with court-martial by his commandingofficer. At the end of his tether, Dresnok walkedacross the most fortified, mine-infested strip of land in Asia, straight intothe arms of the North Koreans, who didn't quite know what to do with him.
Once his captors realised hehad no valuable secret information to impart, Dresnokbegan his adaptation period under the suspicious eyes of his new patrons. Hisclosest companions were three other defectors from the US, one of who had turnedup before him and two who arrived later. His citizenship in North Korea wasgranted only 10 years later; even today, Dresnok stilldoes not have a passport.
Two of his comrades have subsequentlydied, while a third, Charles Jenkins, who he particularly abhorred, was whiskedout of North Korea and later appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Among Jenkins' many tales of woe were claims that Dresnok regularly beat him into submission, something theformer soldier denies with such vehemence that one suspects he only granted theinterview to Daniel Gordon so as to issue his side of events.
Beyond that there isn't muchelse of significance Dresnok has to impart on hislifetime in a country where, even if he does now fluently speak the language,he still sticks out. Politics are carefully avoided, although his respectfulreferences to Kim Il Sung, the founder of the NorthKorean Republic, indicate where he stands.
His personal life is kept inthe shadows as well, revealing only that he has been on a state pension andreceived food rations without interruption, even during the famines whichcaused the death of millions. But aside from teaching conversational English, thereis little else he has had to offer his new home, save for appearing in a propagandafeature.
Gordon and his teamcertainly do their research well enough, finding people who knew Dresnok back in Virginia and talking to the commandingofficer who intended to put him on trial before his impromptu defection. Thereis also a considerable amount of stock footage reflecting the reality of lifein North Korea, such as the monster-size Soviet-style military parades, but itonly perpetuates our current limited view of the country rather than expand it.
Fast cutting serves toreview past recent historical events in interesting fashion, but the audiencewould have been better served with a more in-depth one-on-one interview with Dresnok. By the end the audience is left with the suspicionthat either there was not enough footage of the defector to fill out the workor else Dresnok proved too tricky a subject inperson.
Dongsoong Art Center