North Korea gets that rarest of bouquets — a positive perspective from a former G.I. — in “Crossing the Line,” a portrait of the last U.S. defector still living in the country, Virginia-born James Joseph Dresnok. An average Yank soldier who simply walked across the DMZ in 1962, and has made his home in the DPRK ever since, Dresnok — branded “Comrade Joe” by Stateside media of the time — has never told his story before but does so here with clarity and apparent honesty. Film’s rarity value and still-hot subject matter make this required viewing on the fest circuit and cable channels.
It’s the third trip to the North Korean well by Brit documaker Daniel Gordon, whose previous feature outings, “The Game of Their Lives” (about the World Cup soccer team) and “A State of Mind” (gymnasts prepping for the Arirang Mass Games), have done much to bring a more human face to one of the world’s most demonized states. Subject here is the most “political” of the three, and lacks the involving warmth of Gordon’s previous items, especially “Mind.”
Though Dresnok is never set up as an object of scorn or humor, pic is also fractionally less objective, with an intro that recycles many of the accepted media images of North Korea and uses U.S. actor Christian Slater’s voice for the narration. Result is a loss of the pure British objectivity that especially made “Mind,” which had no voiceover, so refreshing.
However, once the B&W archive footage of the Korean War, and familiar clips of mass troop displays in Pyongyang are over, film lets the main character tell his own story. Dresnok led an orphan life in Glen Allen, Va., before enlisting for the military at age 17. He married before being posted to West Germany for two years. He came home — to be deserted by his wife and have his heart broken.
As an escape, Dresnok immediately re-enlisted and in May ’62 was posted from Richmond to South Korea. The DMZ was the most heavily militarized strip of land on earth and still a war zone, with regular incursions by the North across the red mechanic’s tape that marked the country’s division.
Falling for a local bar girl who serviced the zone’s soldiers, Dresnok visited her once without an official pass and was threatened with court-martial by his superior officer (interviewed here). “There was only one place to go,” remembers Dresnok. “I hit the road.”
At noon on Aug. 15, 1962, he walked across the DMZ’s minefield and was arrested by soldiers on the other side. One North Korean soldier, whose family had been killed by U.S. soldiers, remembers that he felt like bayoneting Dresnok but was restrained by a superior.
Coups like that, as well as talking to Dresnok’s friends and former colleagues back in the U.S., give the docu a real richness, with Gordon & Co. viewing his story from the privileged perspective of interviewing people on both sides of the divide. (U.S. passport holders aren’t allowed into North Korea, and vice versa.)
One of the most moving moments is when the filmers show Dresnok footage and photos of folks and places back in Virginia: Dresnok has now lived twice as long in the DPRK as he has in the States but still gets moist-eyed at images he’ll never get to experience personally again.
Dresnok never gets into the politics of North Korea, but is shown walking round Pyongyang, and fishing and chatting with locals. (He speaks fluent Korean.) Family life — he has three children by two wives — is less explored, and the members of his family are shown but not interviewed.
Dresnok simply says he’s never regretted coming: “I really feel at home. I wouldn’t trade it for nothin.’ “