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Kino on Video presents
Crossing the Line (2006)

"I have never regretted coming to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. I feel at home."
- American defector Joe Dresnok

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: January 07, 2008

Stars: Christian Slater, James Dresnok, Charles Robert Jenkins, Kim Jung Il
Director: Daniel Gordon

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:30m:16s
Release Date: January 08, 2008
UPC: 013131139693
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-B+B- C+

DVD Review

The practice of defecting from one country to another now has an almost nostalgic, Cold War ring to it, bringing with it associations of artists or scientists from behind the Iron Curtain jumping the fence and seeking a better life in the West. Only a handful went the other way, forsaking Western freedoms for the glory of the people's revolution—they seem like historical curiosities, those taken in by the rhetoric of Communism while maintaining a willful blindness to its practice. And then we can forget about them, especially now that the binary East/West axis is no longer the dominant storyline in international relations.

But that doesn't do much for the casualties of the last war, and this documentary is a grimly fascinating look at the very few who threw off the shackles of America for subservience to Dear Leader in North Korea. Specifically, the film focuses on Joseph Dresnok, who as a PFC left his U.S. Army unit and went over to the other side. It's easy to cobble together the thumbnail psychological profile of Dresnok: abandoned to the orphanage by his father after his mother died; marrying young and joining the Army, then spending two chaste years away from his wife while stationed in West Germany, only to find out upon his return that she's thrown him over for another man; re-enlisting and being dispatched to Korea, and succumbing to the welcoming oratory north of the DMZ. Dresnok's defection was clearly more of a propaganda triumph for the North Koreans than a boon to their military intelligence—Dresnok's low rank and apparent lack of curiosity saw to that. But then after the headlines subsided, this great big American had to make a life for himself in a land where his home country was hated, where fulminating against the U.S. was a kind of civic religion—and watching Dresnok contend with his conflicting memories is what makes so much of this so gripping.

There were in fact three other American soldiers who defected, and the quartet were yoked together, and there's a dark movie in there somewhere about the madness inside this sad little platoon. They didn't seem to like each other much in the first place, and this metastasized into contempt and outright hatred; their North Korean masters apparently kidnapped women of various ethnicities from around the globe to serve as their wives; and at one point the four even tried to defect *again*, this time to the USSR. But in a country in which popular culture seems to be devoted in large measure to America bashing, these four found a new calling: as screen villains in North Korean propaganda movies. (Dresnok's biggest triumph was as a sadistic POW commander, apparently a North Korean variation on Otto Preminger in Stalag 17.) It's lunacy, and riveting for being nothing but true.

The film seems to be a purgative experience for Dresnok—he gets to speak English with others, he gets to unload on his enemies, he gets to revisit the memories of his childhood, with the film crew, and though he doesn't articulate it, you can see him reassessing his life, wondering what might have been if he had made a different series of choices—he's high status in North Korea in a way that he was unlikely ever to have been in the U.S., but he's also clearly something of a freak on the streets of his adopted country, and getting a few extra rice rations only points out what a life of deprivation he has led. There's some hypnotic post-Cold War drama when the fellow defector that Dresnok hates most goes back to the West, and the recriminations on both sides are blistering—but that's only the most recent chapter, and the overall portrait of what happened to Dresnok when he crossed over is a singular and disturbing one.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Good strong transfer; there's a lot of archival footage, which obviously varies in quality, but even just the glimpses of life on the streets in Pyongyang are fascinating and well shot.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Christian Slater once again gets his Jack Nicholson on with the narration track, which can be oppressively loud on occasion; volume levels are a little all over the place.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. stills gallery
Extras Review: In an accompanying interview (14m:19s), director Daniel Gordon discusses the many obstacles to getting access to Dresnok and his compatriots, and talks us through the preparation for the shoot; but on a documentary, of course, events are likely to overtake your best laid plans, and they certainly did so here. The disc also includes a stills gallery, mostly snapshots of Dresnok in the Democratic People's Republic through the years; most appear in the feature.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Wheedling into the good graces of the North Korean government has paid off for director David Gordon and his documentary crew, for their portrait of a troubled young man renouncing his country for the Democratic People's Republic and then growing old as a North Korean propaganda prop is as unsettling as it is unexpected.


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