IMDB Link: True North (2020)
Director: Eiji Han Shimuzu
Stars: Sammy Anderson, Jacquelyn Palmquist, Michael Sasaki
Synopsis: After his father disappears and the rest of his family is sent to a notorious political prison camp in North Korea, a young boy must learn to survive the harsh conditions, find meaning in his perilous existence, and maybe even escape.
When going into this film, the first thing you will notice is the animation style. At a first look, where there is little motion, the style is distinct and rough, but has its charm to the look of it. However, when the rigging of the characters start to have motion, the quality of the animation does drop. This looks like a low-budget animation and that does drop the quality of the film, but I do forgive this due to the small budget of the film and the high points of the story and other aspects.
Whilst this is a narrative story structured like a fictional tale, this feels like it is grounded in a sad reality of what happens in North Korea, particularly in the concentration camps. I commend the bravery of the storytellers, as well as the group of people listed at the end of the film, to have the courage to tell their story and expose the harsh conditions that they are forced to live in. The film mentions that many people were not able to be named due to their living conditions, and that is truly heartbreaking to hear.
This film takes you on an emotional journey, and that starts from the first few minutes. The family relationship is established immediately on screen, showing the leadership role and power that the young boy is thrown into. This film is told from his perspective, showing the pressure put on him to protect and try to save his family from the situation they have found themselves thrown into. It is so easy to care about the family, even when they do things that are wrong, because of the pressure and situation they are in.
There is one sequence in which the story twists who the villain and protagonist is, and yet it is not at the fault of the leading characters. In a situation like the one found here, it is sadly survival through actions and doing things that may seem morally wrong, but will keep you alive. This gets twisted later on, when something major impacts a member of the family that we follow. This is a heartbreaking sequence, not only because we understand every characters’ motives in this sequence but because we know it is not them that are the issues. It is the power above them that made this come to happen.
Whilst the first two-thirds of this film are incredibly strong narratively, I do find that the film falters in the final third. The idea becomes a lot more powerful, and it is sadly something that the animation style cannot keep up with. The rough style can be charming when focusing on a few characters, but does not work at all when there are crowds, speeches and huge banners behind the characters. This film is strongest both visually and narratively when focused on the family and their personal struggles, and the story is incredibly emotional when drawn to that.
This film needs to be looked at as a small-budget story, because it would do this story an injustice to compare it to the likes of Pixar Animation. When taking this film apart, the story at the core is strong and has a major impact, looking at a part of the world which still has many problems to this day. I thank the filmmakers for sharing this story, and I hope they are able to share many more and create stories with this much passion, heart and impact.