Here’s a word of advice for any filmmaker who is planning on scribing the autobiography of a person who went through some seriously disturbed trauma:
While being faithful to the original testimonies is essential to your adaptation’s success, it is also equally important and essential to create conversations and commentary on the subject at hand.
With the latest animated feature True North, which premiered at the Annecy Animation Online Festival, this harrowing story of perseverance and family is undermined by the genuinely lazy storytelling featured in it’s hollow execution. North Korea and it’s infamous concentration camps shouldn’t be a laughing matter. Though somehow, director Eiji Han Shimizu manages to disrespect the original tale of survival with an adaptation that’s as amateur as a high school summative film project.
Rickey movements and odd lighting is one whole set of problems to begin with. I can excuse half-baked animation design work, as long as the director’s vision is present through every scene. However, that is far from the case with True North. Forced expositional dialogue and pandering moments of humor to ease the situation is already one set of offensive american-based tropes in one film. It never helps when a feature attempts to minimize a drastic situation with horrid dialogue such as “Eat sleep shit, We’re just a shit factory.” as one of the more notable moments featured in the film. This isn’t the one exception. Every line that is spoken is somehow filtered through a confused gaze, where whoever wrote the script to begin deserves to be in writer’s limbo for the rest of their individual career. Stilted, pandering dialogue is ultimately the greatest enemy in True North.
We can talk all day about the obscure casting decisions of having an English-based set of actors, or the film’s sequence of confounding events and conversations; though I think most importantly we should discuss upon the film’s very existence. Why was this even produced? Even better, why was this story animated in the first place? Animation perseveres when the material at hand is specifically designed (either through narrative conjunction or thematic material) and tailored to certain techniques and attributes found in the extensive animation medium.
There is no tangible excuse for this film to be animated, outside of the fact that there’s minimal real-life photographic reference data of North Korean concentration camps. Due to limited resources, the only plausible reason why this was animated in the first place was either due to a lack of any testimonies on the geography of the location, or the more obvious result being the tight budget. If there’s only one aspect that this film got right, it was the geography and the design of the camps itself. There’s a looming sense of impending danger through every corner, creating a subtle atmosphere of intensity. Though this very same technique could have very well be replicated in live action, with more satisfying results.
Offensive, lazy, and riddled with extensive cardinal sins of filmmaking and basic storytelling, True North should only be suited for the occasional supply teacher day. The actual true story behind True North is rather inspiring, though nothing is more earth-shattering than another person undermining the events of someone’s very real struggle. Consider myself incredibly disappointed, in what should have been a rather applaudable and non-performative retelling of a very real issue that has still yet to be resolved. You’re better off just watching the Ted Talk.
True North screened at this year’s Annecy 2020 Festival in the Contrechamp competition