After its debut at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary, Beyond Utopia drew accolades from film critics and viewers for its depiction of two families defecting from North Korea. The glowing reviews continued after Sundance from critics at the New York Times and Washington Post, who lauded the film as a “thriller” where the “horrors are real.”
Then, in late December, Beyond Utopia made the official shortlist for the Oscar for Best Documentary. Though it was ultimately not nominated in that category, as many outlets had predicted, its inroads within the Academy and Hollywood highlight a larger problem with how Westerners stereotypically depict Korea in its documentaries.
Beyond Utopia is part of what has become a “canon” of North Korean defector documentaries, including Seoul Train (2004), Kimjongilia (2009), and The Defector: Escape from North Korea (2012). But instead of adding anything new to these narratives, Beyond Utopia merely continues the trend of sensationalized stories that dehumanize North Korean people to create buzz-worthy content.