"Crossing the Line" and "Death at a Funeral"

Dennis Harvey and Kristi Mitsuda August 14, 2007

From the American South to the Korean North in “Crossing the Line”

It’s difficult to know much about North Korea, but most Americans know one thing: They wouldn’t want to live there. Thus there’s an automatic fascination with the idea that anyone from the Land of the Free etc. would willingly live in a quote unquote enemy nation generally acknowledged as repressive, poor, and hostile toward by outsiders. What Yankee Doodle Dummy would actually choose to live in such a place?

Somebody like James Dresno — the subject of absorbing documentary “Crossing the Line,” which opens at the Roxie this Friday. It’s the third nonfiction film about North Korea by British director Daniel Gordon, who gained rather extraordinary access for a Western filmmaker in prior efforts “The Game of Their Lives” and “A State of Mind.” Those two were about N.K.‘s internationally competing soccer and gymnastic teams, respectively, thus covering politically neutral terrain. “Crossing” is a different matter.

In 1962 “Comrade Joe” Dresnok defected — the first American to do so since the Korean War — from U.S. Army service in South Korea to the forbidden Communist North. Pissed off by a superior’s threatened court-martial (over his obsession with a local bar girl he’d visited without getting the proper off-base pass), he decided there was “only one place to go.”

He simply walked across the heavily guarded DMZ that separated the two violently severed nations, surrendering himself to authorities — who after initial skittishness (psychological wounds were still very fresh from the recent War) wound up delighted with their “prize” deserter. To the further intense embarrassment of American politicos and high-ranking military, a few more U.S. soldiers soon also “crossed the line” northward — some perhaps lured by easy money and women about which Dresnok himself broadcast.

Notably, all these deserters were low-rank soldiers, high-school dropouts with poor, broken-home backgrounds. Thus they didn’t have much cause for patriotic or folks-back-home sentiment. Dresnok further draws a picture of orphaned childhood and devastation wreaked when his first wife left him during an initial two-year military posting in West Germany. But the dry tears he sheds on-camera seem like a born actor’s savvy melodramatics — and indeed Dresnok, the film says, went on to become a “coveted star of propaganda,” playing the “evil American” in numerous North Korean film productions excerpted here.

Much of what’s compelling about “Crossing the Line” is our increasing suspicion that Dresnok is not telling the truth — a suspicion about his character we’re led to by his overslick storytelling and unconvincing emotional displays, as well as the gossipy way he backstabs erstwhile fellow defectors. (When elderly Charles Jenkins succeeded in getting his whole family to the West in 2002, he made the cover of Time painting a grim portrait of their North Korean life, and of Dresnok as a batteringly violent, willing enforcer/tool for government propaganda.) There are allegations that wives were kidnapped from other nations, their biracial children groomed as future international spies. Neither accusation is as silly as it might sound.

Dresnok comes off as a smart Southerner (he uses “You ain’t got no” double-negatives a lot) who found a free ride he’s to wave’s end. Is he anything more than a me-first exploiter who found a unique luxury niche (which sustained him even during North Korea’s ruinous famine several years back) as professional traitor? Or is he the happily re-settled, largely assimilated traveler he presents himself as? See “Crossing the Line” and judge for yourself.

Last Gasp: Frank Oz’s “Death at a Funeral”.

[SF360.org Editor’s note: This review of “Rocket Science” was first published by indieWIRE on August 13, 2007. The film opens in the Bay Area this Friday.]

“Death at a Funeral” is the kind of movie that inspires anticipatory eyeball-rolling—you feel like you’ve heard permutations of its punch lines in craftier incarnations numerous times before, even as it’s just getting going. This hunch was confirmed when I was cued to chortle mightily at the incongruous impropriety demonstrated when one of the characters screams out the car window after a driver cuts her off, “We’re on our way to a funeral, you wanker, don’t you have any respect?!”

Hewing closely to the preciously cheeky British comedy standard, director Frank Oz focuses on a family as they come to pay their last respects to the patriarch—a ritual, which, natch, devolves into a daffy, disastrous reunion, set amidst one of those outrageously picturesque, vine-covered English estates, the better for the requisite farcical slamming in and out of doors to take place.

The film’s cast of eccentrics (watch them work through their issues!) includes the two sons of the dead man, an aspiring writer named Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen) and successful author Robert (Rupert Graves); a lawyer (Alan Tudyk as a gleeful Simon) unhinged after having mistakenly ingested a hallucinogenic substance in lieu of valium, thoroughly spoiling his knickers-in-a-twist fiancee’s plan to impress her father; and Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughn), a crotchety, cussing old man one’s expected to find absolutely adorable. The actors uniformly ape and exaggerate the tendencies of stock movie characters rather than root them in reality, so when a mysterious little man (Peter Dinklage, unable to work his charismatic magic under such constraints) with unknown relations to the deceased appears, and confronts Daniel with some photos establishing an affair with his father, you know it will only go downhill from here.

Trying too hard to hit its hijinks marks, “Death at a Funeral” hams up its homophobia in bids for bigger laughs as Daniel and Robert go to ridiculous lengths to cover up the shame of their father’s gay relationship. The cringeworthy conceit is compounded by maudlin showmanship when the entire trying day boils down—or builds up—to one incredibly reductive scene wherein Daniel (no, not literary lion Robert, as everyone had hoped) delivers the eulogy. Casting aside his index cards, he steps out from his brother’s long shadow and improvises what is meant to be taken as an eloquent oration (judging from approbatory reaction shots), though it dabbles in trite sentiment along the non-eureka lines of “the most important thing is to have tried.” Smugly believing itself edgy where it’s laughably fusty, bold and original where it’s insipid, this final send-off is a microcosmic display of what’s wrong with the whole damn thing.