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CROSSING THE LINE(director/writer: Daniel Gordon; cinematographer: Nick Bennett; editor: Peter Haddon; music: Heather Fenoughty; cast: Christian Slater (Narrator), James Joseph Dresnok, Charles Robert Jenkins; Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Nicholas Bonner/Daniel Gordon; Kino; 2006-UK/USA-in English and Korean with English subtitles)
“Bizarrely fascinating documentary.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Christian Slater narrates while Brit documentary maker Daniel Gordon (“A State of Mind”/”The Game of Their Lives”) directs and writes this bizarrely fascinating documentary on the desertion in 1962 of the 20-year-old American soldier James Joseph Dresnok to North Korea. Some 45 years later the director is granted permission by the North Koreans to interview the now elderly former American (his first ever interview for Westerners). This was Gordon’s third trip to North Korea as a documentary filmmaker, and evidently the North Koreans had a relationship with him.

“Crossing the Line” turns into one of those “the truth is stranger than fiction” stories that relates a chilling Cold War tale that always seems incomplete and suspect of being used as a tool for North Korean propaganda. It’s up to the viewer to decide how reprehensible is Dresnok, as in all probability the director could only get the film through the North Korean censors by acting neutral and feeding his subject softball questions and letting him talk at will–which he readily does and comes across as not an easy person to like, but not necessarily a liar as much as a poor soul who was willingly duped because of parental issues.

It covers Dresnok deserting his post in the DMZ of Korea and walking over to the North Korean side. We learn the unhappy soldier did it for the following reasons: 1-An unhappy childhood as an abandoned child raised in a Virginia orphanage. 2-Being a high school dropout, with a limited future in the States. 3-His wife divorced him for another man during his first tour of duty, leaving him heartbroken and embittered. 4- He was lonely and alienated. 5-He was about to be court-martialed for forging a pass.

It turns out that Dresnok was the second American soldier to defect, and that within 18 months there were four American soldier defectors, all high school dropouts. Despite living in a vehemently anti-American racist country run by a ruthless dictator and a country with a completely different culture and race of people, the fluent in Korean Dresnok is adament that he never regretted his decision and says “I really feel at home. I wouldn’t trade it for nothin’.”

Dresnok recounts his life in North Korea, how he at one point tried with the others to ask for asylum in the Soviet Union embassy but was told to go back to Korea. He was then re-educated with the others and had no trouble living with North Korea’s fierce hatred of America–even saying he believes they were right in despising America as a warlike country. In 1972 he was accepted as a Korean citizen and as a good Communist, and willingly was used by them as a cog in their propaganda machine. In 1978, the Americans were made movie actors and played evil Americans. In a film that gave the Americans instant celebrity, called the Nameless Heroes, directed by the country’s current ruler, Kim Jong Il, the son of the then dictator, life in North Korea thereafter became bearable and he grew farther apart from his fellow Americans.

After marrying a mysterious European woman, who bore him two children, she died. Next Dresnok married a mixed race Korean woman whose father was an African diplomat who abandoned her mother. Dresnok claims to be happily married, has another son with his third wife and is a big drinker and chain-smoker suffering from a heart condition. His enjoyments are bowling and fishing, and since no political questions were raised we have no idea what are his political thoughts. But he proudly points out his white oldest son is getting a free education in the elite Pyongyang University, and has a better opportunity than he ever had in the States. When talking about the hard times North Korea had during the mid-1990s, he tells us even though the North Koreans were starving (foreign sources say perhaps a million died of starvation) he got his regular rice rations. Therefore in the end, we’re left with Dresnok happily allowing himself to be used by the North Koreans for political purposes and the well-fed big man boasting that the North Korean government will always take care of him even if they ignore others.

The only other American deserter still alive is ex-Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins, who somehow married a much younger Japanese woman kidnapped in her country and was supposedly brought to Korea to breed spies (there supposedly are 13 other Japanese citizens abducted for their spy program). Jenkins was reunited with his Japanese wife in Japan, and has since denounced the North Korean regime and accused Dresnok of beating him to comply with the North Korean party line. Dresnok denies this. But these two less than honorable figures are hardly the men you could easily believe without some further proof, though Dresnok’s story comes across as credible (he seems to be a good storyteller).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”