The wonderful world of North Korean cinema

Artillery Row

It’s a bright, pale blue day in a busy looking park. An attractive young woman, carrying a stack of artwork, is strolling across one of the many pristine white bridges that dart across a stream. In the distance, a man can be seen and heard panting as he chases a small duck that has gotten away from him.

Startled, she drops her papers, which are soon muddied by the feet of this runaway waterfowl. Enraged that it has destroyed her day’s work, she picks up the duck and tosses it into the stream. The man, chasing the duck with basket in hand, is terrified for its safety — leaping into the body of water to rescue it. As he emerges, soaked, the young lady rushes up to him to ensure his safety, and the camera quickly pans to a bright red flower. They have fallen in love.

This is a perfectly quirky opening scene to what would otherwise be an uninteresting film — except … the water in that stream flows from the River Taedong, that park is located in downtown Pyongyang, the bright red flower is a Kimjongilia (yes, that is its real name) and these two lovebirds (and the duck) are proud citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Music plays as the title of this picture is written across the sky. In Korean it says, “City Girl Comes to the Village to Get Married” (not the most imaginative name, I will grant you that), and the film proceeds: one hour and 13 minutes of pure agitprop cinema, another masterpiece.

Every true Englishman needs an obsession. Unfortunately, mine happens to be North Korean cinema and music (don’t worry, I’m not a double agent; I just have too much free time).

The idea of a couple even kissing on camera is almost unheard of

As a reclusive hermit kingdom, North Korea has been very isolated from the rest of the world’s media — especially its films and music. This has resulted in a rather unique scenario in which the entire country’s domestic film industry was essentially dictated by one man — Kim Jong Il, who had a private collection of some 30,000 films. If Prussia was an army with a state, then pre-2012 North Korea was a film nerd with a nuclear arsenal. It is actually quite difficult to overstate just how much the former supreme leader loved the movies. He had his own private cinema installed in his home, and he was a more-than-frequent visitor to the “Korean Film Studio” (one of the country’s only film studios), based just outside of the nation’s capital of Pyongyang.

Rare photographs of the Korean Film Studio showcase a wall marked with the dates of every time Kim Jong Il came to visit them to give directorial guidance to the film crews. There are literally hundreds of occurrences of these events. Kim Jong Il was so obsessed that he would eventually go on to capture foreign actors and directors (mainly from South Korea and Japan) to play leading roles, direct his films, and give lessons to aspiring North Korean actors and directors. This resulted in the creation in 1985 of “Pulgasari”, a North Korean version of Godzilla.

Kim Jong Il even published his own book, On The Art of Cinema, which explains in great detail how best to produce revolutionary cinema which the average Korean citizen can enjoy. It serves as a handbook for any would-be film producer in Pyongyang, even today.

The movies that North Korea produces are often bizarre to a western audience, and many of them focus on themes and messages that we would not be used to: the benefits of work over pleasure, the importance of the state, etc. Even in a land with as bad a reputation as the DPRK, they still do find the time to present more common themes that we would expect to see in our own media, though: love, relationships, drama and comedy.

It is said that Communism has a “freezing effect” on culture. This is certainly evident in the films produced in Pyongyang. You would struggle to find anyone dressed in a style more informal than “smart casual”, and the idea of a couple even kissing on camera is almost unheard of. In fact, of the many films I have watched from that country, I don’t think I have ever seen a couple kiss on screen. For a nation that outwardly prides itself on its liberation of women and the rights of homosexuals, gay relationships are never shown on screen or even mentioned, and you will very rarely see a woman performing a traditionally “masculine” job”. They are normally set up as singers, journalists or fashion designers (so many fashion designers). If you are lucky, you might see one or two female scientists or a woman working on a farm. Apart from that, it is quite uncommon. (Whoa … maybe Ben Shapiro was right all along … maybe the left … are the real sexists?)

Of course, this lack of “diversity” in North Korean cinema makes complete sense. The nation is almost entirely ethnically homogenous, highly socially conservative and (if you consider Kim Il Sung to be a deified man) highly religious, too.

Characters often pause to curse the cruelty of the Japanese or Americans

The stories told in NK cinema normally revolve around families and communities in a single static setting — a farm, a factory, an apartment block. From an outsider’s perspective, it can be genuinely interesting to learn about different elements of Korean life in isolation. The concept of communal farms or tower block management committees was quite alien to a Westerner like me, so it was illuminating to see a “model” example of that world and what it entails. The stories themselves normally involve “fish out of water” scenarios in which a person has moved jobs or location. The character  is often presented with an ethical dilemma that they can’t seem to get past. Many of the films also feature at least one misdirection or twist.

The main protagonists of these films are normally geniuses who work as doctors, engineers, fashion designers, farm managers and inventors. They all toil and work very hard to ensure that their specific job is performed correctly and will somehow benefit the nation. In his book, Kim Jong Il said that Korean films must showcase real Korean life and emphasise the Juche ideal. It is not surprising then that a country based on farming, mining and textiles would focus on these industry leaders as their main characters, or that their main aims would be to make the nation better and more self-reliant.

Following closely behind their work, families and communities, the actors in these films like to talk about two other things: their love of the Workers Party of Korea and Kim Il Sung, and their hatred of America and the Japanese. The shoe-horning of these moments can be sometimes unbearable, as characters will often stop and pause to explain that their motivations for work, family, community boil down to a deep admiration for the dear leader, and to curse the cruelty of the Japanese or Americans. These are oxymoronically portrayed as cunning, strong and sly geniuses who are also terrifically incompetent and could be totally destroyed if Koreans would just work harder.

The political implications of these films are interesting. Whenever we see pictures on the television of North Korea — Kim Jong Il’s funeral, the New Year’s celebrations, etc — we often scoff at those Koreans who stand around crying and wailing or waving large banners. We mock them and claim that it is all for show to avoid being punished. I don’t think this is the case; I think they genuinely believe it. All of their media, every single ounce of it, tells them all the time that the Kim dynasty is the smartest and most competent ruling political clique to exist, that the forces of Satan himself are always poised to strike, and that their independence was won by the genius of the Workers Party of Korea alone. Can you really blame them for believing it?

Of course, we should not behave as if this were completely alien. In the West, we have more choice as to what media we want to consume — but that does not mean we aren’t subjected to propaganda. The least we can do is be aware of it.

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