Now that Kim Jong-un has disappointed the world by continuing his late father’s crushing leadership, it becomes tempting to write North Korea off as a lost cause. But its citizens don’t feel that way. Every year, defectors escape North Korea by surreptitiously crossing the border into eastern China. China, however, isn’t the end destination. If caught in The People’s Republic, defectors will be sent back to their homeland and punished.

In The Defector: Escape from North Korea , director Ann Shin follows a group of North Koreans who find themselves stuck in China. This state of purgatory is replete with insecurity and paranoia. Luckily, China is not-so-secretly a capitalist society; where there’s demand for a service, someone will meet this demand. In comes Tiger, a man who specializes in smuggling North Korean defectors out of China, through Laos’ jungles and into Thailand. He’s sort of shady and works for profit, but frequently declares himself to be a principled human rights activist. Shin (a Korean-Canadian from Toronto) tags along on one of Tiger’s high risk smuggling operations, bonding with his customers and worrying about the safety and morality of this branch of human trafficking.

The Defector mixes suspense with larger commentary on refugee issues and black market realities. Moments of tenseness alternate with factoids and anecdotes about the hardships of life in North Korea. By following a specific group of defectors – notably all women – Shin carves a personalized story out of a political issue. Also, The Defector is carefully and beautifully shot. For a guerilla documentary, major thought went into the desired aesthetic. As a result, The Defector is compelling as a movie and effective as a plea against human suffering.

Is The Defector: Escape from North Korea essential Hot Docs viewing?

The Defector exemplifies good, by-the-book documentary chops and gets kudos for its high-stakes filming circumstances. Those seeking insight into the lives of North Korea’s oppressed people will find what they are looking for.

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