'True North': Film Review | Annecy 2020

Courtesy of Annecy International Animation Film Festival
A harrowing account of a modern-day concentration camp.

Writer-director-producer Eiji Han Shimizu's animated feature details the atrocities committed in one of North Korea’s notorious labor camps.

Although it takes the form of an animated feature, writer-director Eiji Han Shimizu’s True North is definitely not for kids. But as a rare glimpse inside a North Korean prison camp, this grueling and poignant true-to-life tale can make for necessary viewing, especially for anyone interested in learning more about one of the world's most blatant crimes against humanity.

Premiering in the Annecy festival’s Contrechamp sidebar, the entire selection of which has been presented online, True North can be a bit clunky in the animation department, with realistic if rudimentary 3D graphics recalling the early days of computer-generated cartoons. The fact that voices are dubbed into English doesn’t necessarily help matters either. And yet the film maintains its power and shock value from beginning to end, illustrating events that few outside Kim Jong Un’s fiefdom have ever witnessed, with only a handful of survivors able to tell their tales to the rest of the world.

Indeed, the interest of True North lies in how it tries, however awkwardly at times, to provide images for a phenomenon that has gone unseen for more than half a century, and continues to this day. There are no available photos or newsreels of North Korea’s five known political prisoner camps, in which an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 live in subhuman conditions, suffering from starvation, disease, torture and backbreaking labor. The only photographic evidence available to us is satellite imagery taken from far above.

First-time filmmaker Shimizu, who is of Korean descent but born in Japan, attempts to make visible the invisible, using CGI to depict horrors that have taken place in the DPRK since the 1950s, with his fictionalized account kicking off in 1995 and ending around a decade later. (Another film, the 2012 documentary Camp 14: Total Control Zone, also used animation for certain sequences.)

The details he provides are brutal: emaciated men and women fighting over scraps of food or bludgeoned to death by ruthless guards; regular public executions that all inmates are forced to watch; skeletal faces and bodies covered with sores from pellagra, a disease caused by the lack of vitamin B; rape and forced abortions; hard labor, in fields, mines and workshops, that can go on for 18 hours a day, with workers dying on the job; torture and beatings on a daily basis.

As dark as that sounds — and True North is unquestionably dark — the story that Shimizu has concocted, which he based on accounts from camp survivors and former guards, tries to bring a shred of humanity into the picture, albeit in a limited fashion.

We follow a family of three: a young boy, his older sister and their mother (none of the characters have first names), who are shipped off to a labor camp after their father, an interpreter, is accused of a political crime. The majority of the film is set inside the enormous facility, which resembles a small city and is ruled by a draconian commander with no qualms about shooting prisoners. People live like animals, swearing allegiance to Kim Jong Il (the leader at the time) while they die from empty stomachs, unchecked diseases or other forms of human neglect.

As the boy grows up to become a teenager, he learns how to survive, often at the expense of others. It’s a cruel and cutthroat world where the prisoners need to eat rats, rabbits or whatever else they can get their hands on. And yet some people, including our young hero, are able to rise above their conditions and help others in need, making sacrifices that provide hope in a hopeless place.

Shimizu, who wrote, directed and produced, can sometimes go overboard in the narrative department, turning True North into a Hollywood-style affair with its twists, turns, dramatic escapes and moments of truth. Such elements do not, however, undermine what’s most memorable about his first feature: how it reveals, often with painstaking animated detail, an atrocity that is still happening right now.

Venue: Annecy Film Festival 
Production company: Sumimasen Pte. Ltd.
Director, screenwriter, producer, editor: Eiji Han Shimizu
Composer: Matthew Wilder
Art director: Andrey Pratama
Storyboard artist: Kazuki Ebine
Key animator: Melita Budiman

93 minutes