Offering interviews, info, interpretive dance and generous helpings of North Korean kitsch, “Kimjongilia” tells us one thing we probably already know: That Kim Jong-Il, the despot with the black bouffant, is one of the world’s worst at-large criminals, possibly mad, and with a legacy of horror that reaches across generations. Helmer N.C. Heikin orders up her indictment of the “Dear Leader” in a manner passionate and artistic, elevating fascinating, woeful facts into a wholly elevated realm. While mainstream theatrical isn’t in the cards, this doc seems likely to lead a healthy life on cable, at festivals and in arthouses.
The Kim dynasty was established 60 years ago when the current leader’s father, Kim Il-Sung, established North Korea as a Marxist state, invaded the south and kicked off the Korean War. Despite the “Great Leader’s” brutality and incompetence, he was a revered, even mythic figure: “He can travel miles while sitting down,” is just one of the claims made for him by the North Korean people, whose fealty to the Kims is portrayed by Heikin as that of an abused child to its parent.
As we learn, North Korean policy is to purge three generations of an offender, so many of Heikin’s interview subjects — who spoke from various locations outside North Korea — were born or grew up in the current Kim’s gulag of concentration camps, where stealing food, shirking work or just having a bad attitude means execution by firing squad. A quick death might be preferable, given North Korea’s inability to feed its people: As many as 3.5 million may have perished during the famine of the mid-’90s when world food aid was diverted to the elite, and the common Korean left to die.
The horrors of life as portrayed by Heikin’s subjects, all Kim victims, are both ameliorated and elevated by the director’s devices, which include a smattering of cheesy Kim-era film and art; the brief introduction of the national flower, the Kimjongilia; and, most intriguingly, a uniformed female traffic agent, whose occasional appearances and dancing provides an anguished, abstract and mute commentary on many unspeakable things.
Production values are tops, notably Peterson Almeida and Mary Lampson’s editing.