As a profile of the only U.S. defector to North Korea who still lives on those shuttered shores, “Crossing the Line,” directed by Daniel Gordon, is valuable for its subject matter alone. Compelling storytelling, amazing footage, and an extraordinary glimpse of life in one of the dark side’s seemingly shadiest zones, however, make this little documentary stirringly worthy.
The subject is James Joseph Dresnok, a Virginia-bred high-school dropout who, as a young U.S. Army solider fed up with his American existence, tore across a mine-rigged field in the Korean DMZ in 1962. Initially arrested on communist North Korean soil, “Comrade Joe” would eventually have a life of privilege as an English teacher, a propaganda tool, and a movie star in his adopted country. Via interviews, footage and factoids, Gordon presents the now 60-something Dresnok’s story.
The movie is not a wow-fest. It starts out like a history lecture, and Gordon’s apparent attempt to attribute Dresnok’s defection to childhood abandonment issues plays simplistically.
And while Gordon (who previously shot two sports docs in North Korea) reportedly had unrestricted access to Dresnok and other interviewees, he doesn’t offer a penetrating portrait of either the country or Dresnok. The latter, who, for decades, has been cared for by the North Korean government, brings an unenlightening party-line air to his conversations.
Still, however, Gordon’s interlacing of history bytes, personality tidbits and serious reflections enables the film to triumph as an account of a remarkable journey, as a dip into the cold-war brain, and as a rare look at everyday life in North Korea — a bowling alley, a doctor’s office, a birthday party.
Terrific, first of all, is Gordon’s inclusion of three additional defectors, who, along with Dresnok, shared a meaningful but unsustainable bond. Their stories, which include a kidnapped wife and other intrigue involving the North Korean government, could fill a separate documentary.
The multifaceted picture also addresses atrocities committed by the United States and propaganda campaigns waged by both sides. Excerpts from a film starring the four defectors as evil Americans — directed by Kim Jong-il (!) — are priceless.
The film’s chief asset, though, is Dresnok, who, despite his above-cited drawbacks, is forthcoming and viewer-friendly. A large man with three kids and, despite his tobacco-impaired health, a vital quality, he may be deluded in his extolling of the regime, but his thoughts seem genuine, his fishing buddies are cheery, and his tone is life-embracing.
Crossing the Line ***
With James Joseph Dresnok
Directed by Daniel Gordon
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Screening at the Roxie