The Dear Director: Essential North Korean Cinema

Jon Foro on February 06, 2015
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A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fischer

ABR-KJIP_CoverNorth Korea has a complex relationship with the movies. Most people with access to TV, internet, or ears will be familiar with The Interview and the recent kerfuffle that Rogen and Franco's assassination comedy caused when Kim Jong-un and the DPRK apparat took notice, and then offense. But the story goes much farther back than that.

In 1978, Kim Jong-il, having not yet risen to the office of Dear Leader, ran North Korea's Ministry for Propaganda, which included its film studios. Though he had achieved a measure of success as screenwriter and producer for all of the country's cinematic output (everything being relative), he became dissatisfied with the resources at his disposal and arranged for the abduction of fresh talent: Choi Eun-hee, South Korea's leading actress, and her ex-husband Shin Sang-ok, its most celebrated director. Following Shin's four-year re-education in a prison camp (the price of an escape attempt), Kim "encouraged" a reconciliation, and together the three set out to change the face of film history.

For writer/filmmaker Paul Fischer, the subject resonated. "The key thing early on for me was the idea of a Faustian pact: of being forcibly kidnapped by a ruthless dictator, who then offers you all the resources you want, on condition that you only make films praising him." But unsurprisingly, distilling the real story from the ever-escalating hyperbole of the North Korea news cycle wasn't easy. "So much is passed on about North Korea and taken on face value without fact-checking, and at the same time it’s a state that is genuinely so bizarre that untruths or embellishments only serve to undermine what is demonstrably and factually insane about it."

The book that resulted from Fischer's fascination, A Kim Jong-Il Production, captures all the eyebrow-furrowing absurdity that you'd expect from such a premise, balanced with a sense of the grim reality of Choi and Shin's plight. And what about the work? Did Kim & Company raise the quality of their northern neighbors' artistic sensibilities? For a while, anyway. "His work introduced North Korean audiences to romance, action, fun — all things that were expressly forbidden in the homogenous, asexual, puritan duty-first existence the Kims had been writing for them since the DPRK’s founding in 1945." But after just seven films, Kim's studio collapsed when Shin and Choi escaped into the gates of the U.S. embassy in Vienna. The Golden Age of Korean cinema was over in 1986, and by 1994, Kim became Supreme Leader--a position with even bigger perks.

For those unfamiliar with North Korean cinema, we asked Fischer for his selections for the best movies ever produced by Kim and the Hermit Kingdom. A Kim Jong-Il Production is a selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of the Month for February 2015.

 

A GUIDE TO THE ESSENTIAL CINEMA OF NORTH KOREA

by Paul Fischer

Kim Jong-il: the award-winning filmmaker.

It’s not a sentence that most people expect.

One of the things that attracted me the most to the story of A Kim Jong-Il Production, when I started researching it, was the new version of Kim Jong-il I was discovering, that I had never encountered before. Like most people, my visual image of Kim was of a short old man in a khaki parka and big sunglasses, faintly threatening but mostly ridiculous, like a Bond-like villain from a cheap sub-Roger Corman picture. But the pictures I found of Kim in the early day of research showed a confident, almost dandy-ish young man, who wouldn’t have seemed out of place in Williamsburg or Flatbush, with a trim figure, sharp haircut, snazzy shoes and trendy frames, a cigarette always dangling from his fingers, a Hennessy by his elbow. Kim Jong-il, it is little-known, ran North Korea’s cinema industry from 1968 to the 1990s. He supervised every film, every decision, and, especially in the early days, often took an active part in the writing, directing, and editing of the pictures, which he saw as the most powerful means of propaganda and indoctrination at the disposal of the state. He banned all foreign films and made sure the people could see — in fact, were legally obliged to see — only his own. Until the mid–1980s North Korean films had no official end credits, but Kim was essentially the producer or executive producer of every one of them, and they all reflect his personal tastes and ambitious. One of the interesting side effects of this is that a short walk through the cinema of North Korea is a short walk through the formation of the DPRK’s modern culture.

Here, briefly, is a guide to the essential cinema of North Korea. A warning, however: it is very, very bad cinema.

MY HOME VILLAGE (1948) The first film ever made in North Korea was made, mostly, by Russians, who had been sent by Stalin after World War II to help Kim Il-sung create a propaganda apparatus. Kim Jong-il was only a child when MY HOME VILLAGE was made, but the film marks the beginning, in North Korean mythmaking, of his life as a cinematic genius. According to official propaganda, youthful Jong-il attended a preview screening of the film and quickly embarrassed its more experienced makers by pointing out all its continuity errors and special effects deficiencies — and then casually suggesting ways to fix them all. The end result is still a film where the effects and trick shots are, fittingly, laughably clumsy: it is an obvious fakery, a trick of the mind, like the cult of the Kims and the DPRK itself would both turn out to be.

SEA OF BLOOD (1968) The first of Kim’s “Immortal Classics” (as Kim himself humbly requested they be known), and his first big production as studio head. The film, a big musical about a Korean family resisting the Japanese invader, had all the hallmarks of what would become Kim Jong-il’s style: young, virtuos, female protagonists; cruel and caricatural foreign bad guys; theme songs; racial nationalist undertones and weepy nostalgia. He liked his pictures both melodramatic and violent. (As much as the young Kim can be compared to Goebbels, the shaper of a country’s ideological brainwashing apparatus, he was also, in his own way, like North Korea’s Michael Bay: things should be big and obvious, there must be loud set pieces and a popular tune, and never, ever, must there be any self-doubt or self-reflection. If technology had allowed for extensive lens flares, one imagines Kim Jong-Il would have overused them too.)

THE FLOWER GIRL (1972) A film so popular in North Korea that it has almost become a founding myth of collective consciousness. Its star actress, who was discovered by Kim Jong-il as an untested student who had never appeared on screen before, became so famous she later welcomed visiting delegates off the plane when they landed in Pyongyang and, for years, her face graced the North Korean one won note. THE FLOWER GIRL is in the same mould as SEA OF BLOOD, but more focused: a young woman sells flowers in the street to survive during the harsh days of Japanese oppression. Her mother is gravely ill, her father dead, her brother imprisoned by the Japanese, her baby sister blinded by a sadistic landlord who collaborates with the invader. Awful, awful things happen to everyone involved. Many tears are shed — interrupted only by a handful of musical numbers — until, in the very last minutes, Kim Il-sung’s army rides in to save the day. THE FLOWER GIRL won North Korea’s first film festival award, and went on to have successful theatrical runs in China and throughout the Eastern bloc.

Pulgasari

 

PULGASARI (1986) North Korea’s most infamous film was a Godzilla rip-off executive produced by Kim Jong-il and directed by Shin Sang-ok, the filmmaker he had kidnapped in 1978 and imprisoned in a gulag until he could be convinced to work for the regime. Pulgasari — the epic tale of an iron-eating dragon who joins forces with oppressed peasants to defeat, you’ve guessed it, an evil landlord — is one of those films that are so bad they’re good, like Ed Wood’s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE or Nicholas Webster’s SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS. The monster changes sizes according to the needs of each shot — so that, in one scene, he is taller than a building but, in the next, he just has to hunch down to share a shot with humans — and when he punches buildings to destroy them, he reveals nothing but empty papier mache rooms on the inside. When Shin tricked Kim and escaped, defecting to the US in exchange for asylum and protection, Kim set out to make the film a success almost as if to spite him. PULGASARI ended up being a smash in Japan, and gained a cult following on VHS and DVD in the United States, becoming a fixture of late-night, beer-and-marijuana fuelled viewing sessions among film students.

SOULS PROTEST (2000) Six years after Kim Jong-il officially took over the reins of the country, the Dear Leader took one last shot at creating a cinematic classic with SOULS PROTEST, a rip-off of James Cameron’s TITANIC (1997), then the highest-grossing film of all time. (Money had always been a key motivator for Kim: “communist” state or not, he needed hard cash to sustain his lifestyle, and from the 1980s doggedly pursued the idea that he could make films successful enough to do so.) Ostensibly a dramatisation of a real-life Korean slave ship disaster, SOULS PROTEST awkwardly mixed the most impressive special effects a North Korean film had featured to date (still nothing to hold a candle to even an average Western TV movie of the week) with the usual propaganda (it’s suggested the ship in the film was sunk by the Japanese, and the obligatory sequence praising Kim Il-sung and his liberation army is lazily tacked on near the end). The film was ridiculed by the Western press at its film festival premiere and then bought by a South Korean company, which swiftly and mysteriously buried it and blocked its release. Kim Jong-il never attempted to make a blockbuster again.

 

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