Permanent State of War: A Short History of North Korean Cinema
Like the leading article in the Party paper, the cinema should have mass appeal and should keep ahead of new developments, thus playing a mobilizing role in each stage of the revolutionary struggle. – Kim Il Sung
7th Pyongyang Film Festival of Non-Aligned and Other Developing Countries, September 2000. The female brass band of the Korean People’s Army played snappy military marches, moving their legs in exact sync while proceeding ahead of the slightly bewildered, motley crowd of international delegates. Thousands of girls in traditional Korean garb lined the concrete slabs leading towards the Pyongyang International Cinema Hall, a huge structure on Yanggak Islet in the River Taedong, performing dances, waving artfully with colored cloths, or drumming old-style Korean changgos. The 40 or so delegates fired at them rounds after rounds of photo film while their minders had a hard time reminding them “this is an official function and not a tourist trip.” But that international guests did feel like being kind of trippy – they were TV directors from Russia and China, indie filmmakers from Malaysia and Iran, documentary filmmakers from Egypt, festival curators from Finland, and movie house programmers from Germany – and none of them could ever expect an even remotely similar welcome back home.
A small army of North Korean newsmen shot back with all the firepower they had available – from new Sony video cameras to vintage 16mm hand-cranks from the 1960s. This was headline news – the arrival of the international guests for the opening ceremony of North Korea’s film festival.
Since it’s inception in 1987, the Pyongyang Film Festival is one of the few international events with which the Pyongyang regime tries to reach out to the outside world. Since 1990, the festival is staged in autumn every two years.
For Pyongyang residents the festival provides a rare opportunity to see some foreign films, the only opportunity in two years, actually, to see them on the big screen. North Korean movie theaters don’t show foreign fare outside the festival and only one foreign film is shown per week on North Korean TV – usually an old Eastern European one. The crowds showing up at the theaters were accordingly big – people starved of outside images would fight about tickets for pretty much anything.
For the international guests, however, it was less fun. The various delegations were split off according to their nationalities and each got separate screenings in the vast confines of the Cinema Hall. They were subjected to what was called the “Film Market Screenings” – a feeble excuse to provide foreigners with movies without them witnessing the reactions of the local audience.
For anyone trying to catch up on recent developments in North Korean cinema however, those “market screenings” are a good opportunity – although at the screenings, movies from the 1970s deemed important are served up alongside the most recent productions. The few catalogues available on North Korean cinema usually don’t even mention the year a film was made in. The delegates who had a minder connected to the film industry were lucky – regular tourist guides – the majority – would just shrug their shoulders and answer film-related questions with “dunno”. But after viewing their first two or three NK films, most foreigners would go out of their way to avoid further exposure to what they largely considered dire wastes of celluloid.
Korea had been annexed by Japan in 1910 and big efforts were made to Japanize Korea. Korean language and culture were actively suppressed and supplanted with Japanese ways of living. These efforts met fierce resistance by the Koreans who staged various large-scale rebellions, riots, and had guerilla troops in the Northern mountains battling the colonial masters. The end of Japanese rule over Korea, however, could not be achieved by these means – it needed Emperor Hirohito’s unconditional surrender of Japan to the allied forces at the end of World War II, after the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to get the Japanese giving up on the colony and pull out. The day of Japan’s surrender, August 15th, 1945, is still a holiday in both North and South Korea and is celebrated as “Liberation Day”.
But a “liberation” of Korea was hardly what the war’s victorious powers had in mind. In an agreement drawn in Yalta, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had Korea split up in their respective zones of influence. The Soviet Union was to move their troops into the area north of the 38th parallel, the U.S. to the areas south of it. And both installed their “puppets” to run things for them. The Americans opted for anti-communist stronghand Rhee Syng-man as “the man” in their territory, while the Soviets went for a Moscow-groomed former anti-Japanese guerilla fighter – Kim Il-sung.
Dating back to Lenin, the moniker has been around that “Cinema is the most important of all arts”. Kim Il-sung certainly believed in the overwhelming power of movies. Even before he called himself “Great Leader” and declared the Soviet-occupied northern zone of Korea to the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” in 1948, he had the first North Korean documentary film crew set up in 1946 and founded the Korean Film Studios outside of Hyonjesan District on the outskirts of Pyongyang a year later. Their first film was released in 1949.
My Home Village, directed by Kang Hong-sik, was Kim Il-sung’s first cinematic foray into the build-up of a myth that would be from now on state doctrine: it was not the end of WWII that liberated the Koreans from the Japanese colonizers and it was not the Soviet Red Army either. The task of throwing the Japanese out of Korea was accomplished by only one force: Kim Il-sung’s “Korean People’s Revolutionary Army”. They, and nobody else battled the Japanese out from the holy soil of Korea – and along with the Japanese their main allies within the country, the reactionary class of Korean landowners and feudal lords, those damnable traitors of the nation. Nobody else than Kim Il-sung, the “Great Leader”, could have achieved all that…
The North Korean’s themselves hammer this point home in their own description of the film: “This was the first feature film to be produced after the country’s liberation. It gives a picture of the boundless joy and emotion of the Korean people who are now liberated from the colonial yoke of Japanese imperialism thanks to the glorious anti-Japanese armed struggle organized and led by the great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung.”
The film starts with a shot of a rather unconvincing model of Mount Paektu, the water-filled dead volcano on the Korean-Chinese border that the Koreans consider the holy mountain of the nation. According to legend, 5000 years ago a god named Hwanung had his residence up there. One day, a bear and a tiger approached Hwanung and asked to be transformed to human beings. Hwanung gave both of them 20 pieces of garlic and told them to eat all of it and to avoid the sunlight for one hundred days. Only the bear followed the instructions and was turned into a woman after 37 days already. Hwanung married the woman and they had a son, mythical King Tangun , who became the ancestor of all Koreans and who founded the first capital of a Korean kingdom, Asadal – the city that is nowadays Pyongyang. All things purely Korean started from Mount Paektu – and so of course also the liberation of the country by Kim Il-sung according to North Korean “history”. It was on the slopes of that mountain that he had fought, according to the North Korean propaganda, his most important battles against the Japanese oppressor troops, from there, he liberated the rest of the country. So, it was quite logical to start the first North Korean movie with a picture of that holy place. In fact, snow-capped Mount Paektu can be seen on the logo shown at the beginning of each movie produced by the Korean Film Studio ever since.
The film cuts to a farmer named Gwan-pil who rents his land from a vicious feudal lord. Not able to endure the daily insults by the landlord anymore, he vents his rage and beats the landlord up. Of course, he loses his land and ends up in a Japanese-run prison. There, he meets Hak-jun, an operative of Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Revolutionary Army who introduces him to Kim Il-sung’s nationalist-communist ideology. Together, the 2 guys start a prison riot and manage to escape in the ensuing confusion. Hak-jun heads with Gwan-pil towards the guerilla fighters in the mountains, near Mount Paektu, of course. Right before they reach them, the police catch up with them and open fire. Hak-jun is killed. Right at that moment the guerilla fighters appear from behind the bushes, firing at the police. They wipe out nearly the whole squad, only a few of them running away in a manner that clearly depicts them as cowards. Gwan-pil, rescued in the last minute, joins the guerillas and we see him being trained as a fighter and then, together with his guerilla friends, ambushing Japanese army units and blowing up bridges. Eventually, he takes part in the liberation of his home village where the feudal landlord and his son are cruelly punished for their misdeeds by the farmers. After victory, Gwan-pil is celebrated by his mother and the villagers. Together with his girlfriend, he starts to work on the creation of the new, Kim Il-sung-run North Korean society…
In 1950, tensions between the Northern and Southern parts of the divided peninsula resulted in all-out war. Both parties claim the other side attacking. The Northerners made an advance, overrunning most of the South except a small pocket around Pusan. Then, the U.N. backed, American-led invasion at Incheon changed the fortunes and Kim Il-sung’s troops were pushed way up north towards the Chinese border. Mao Tse-tung, the “Great Helmsman” of China, sent in hundreds of thousands of his soldiers as “volunteers”, pushing back the U.N. forces. The result of that? Trench-fighting roughly along the same lines, which were the border between the Southern and Northern zones before the war. A truce treaty drawn up between all parties involved (except Southern leader Rhee Sung-man who refused to sign) at the border village of Panmunchon ended the war in 1953 with a truce.
Pyongyang had been reduced to rubble by American bombing during the war and the North Korean film studio had also been turned into a heap of ashes. Film production declined during the war years but did not stop entirely. Out of propagandistic necessity, a new genre emerged – the war film, dealing with current events. In 1951, Boy Partisans was made, in 1952 Again to the Front and 1953 saw the premiere of Scouts by Chon Dong-min. The latter film describes the advance of a reconnoitering squad into the rear of the Southern enemy in the early stages of the war – when the North was advancing fast. The squad of not very credible heroes attacks a Southern headquarter and snatches the enemy’s military operation plan away from the U.S. military adviser in a rather unlikely daytime battle. On their way back North, they discover a Southern artillery installation. Of course, the bold heroes obliterate that installation in another super-human gunfight.
The end of the war didn’t bring an end of the war film genre. To the contrary, on the movie screens the war had just begun. In battle epics like Orang River (1957, by Yun Ryong-gyu), The Defenders of Height 1211 (by Li Gi-song, 1950s), and Namgang Village Women (by Pak Dae-sik and Ham Un-bong, 1950s), Northern super-heroes and their equally heroic and determined civilian supporters went on slaughtering cartoonish-evil Southern soldiers – to “serve as a powerful means of ideological education instrumental to arming our people with the anti-imperialist revolutionary thought and high class consciousness and infusing them with a correct view of war.” as the hacks at (North) Korea Film Export & Import Corp. put it.
Right after the end of the war, in 1953, the Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts was founded to groom future talent. Sagas that hailed the Great Leader as the great liberator continued to be produced and the Korean War never stopped on the movie screens. But now, a new genre was needed, a genre which later became labeled “Feature films on the theme of the socialist reality.”
Within this genre, current problems could be dealt with – namely the adjustment of North Korean society to the principles of Kim Il-sung’s leadership. Thinking along old feudal lines was severely denounced here, as well as any pro-Western thoughts. It took a few years till this new genre matured – until the early 1960s actually – but from then on “socialist reality” films were produced seriously. From problem-ridden the focus soon shifted to the sheer glory of the new North Korea – a film aptly titled We Are the Happiest was advertised this way: “Through the images of the central characters, the film shows in great style the life of our people who are the happiest in the world under the care of the Party and the shining achievements of the Juche art which is in full blossom in the era of the Worker’s Party.”
By then Kim Il-sung had formulated his “Juche Theory”. While other Communist regimes propagated the international working class as the main revolutionary force fighting in solidarity against a class of international capitalists and imperialists, the Juche Theory infuses the glorification of workers and farmers with extreme nationalism, installs Great Leader Kim Il-sung as a deity and declares a unified, self-reliant Korea as main goal of the revolutionary progress. According to state propaganda, North Korea achieved full self-reliance with its “liberation” by Kim Il-sung. No help from any Communist brothers is admitted – not the fact that the Soviets installed Kim Il-sung, nor the Chinese volunteers fighting in the Korean War, who get short shrift at official functions and are not acknowledged in cinema at all. By the 1960s, North Korea already is advertised as the best country in the world because it is the only country with such a genius leader. Japan and the U.S. on the other hand are treated as eternal enemies of the Korean race.
In North Korea, everything under the sun has become penetrated with Juche thinking – from politics to education to the arts to all the minor things in daily life. “Love the Leader, fight for the fatherland!” all propaganda relentlessly screams. And so does, of course, North Korean cinema.
Kim Jong-il, the son of Great Leader Kim Il-sung, according to Western sources was born in a village near Khabarovsk in Siberia in 1941. North Korea gives a different account: he was born in a guerilla fighter camp near Mount Paektu, the holy mountain of Korea. Somewhere down the line, they changed his year of birth, too, making him a year younger. Kim Il-sung liked even numbers better.
Kim Jong-il had been a movie nut from early on – and as the son of the Great Leader his power was tremendous even while he was a kid – at least, this is what a booklet named “Great Man and Cinema”, which was distributed to the foreign guests at the 7th Pyongyang Film Festival, wants us to believe.
According to that booklet, Kim Jong-il attended a preview screening of My Home Village in 1949 and this is the “anecdote” “Great Man and Cinema” has to report from that screening:
“Comrade Kim Jong-il has been very fond of the cinema since his childhood. After Korean liberation he often accompanied the great leader Comrade Kim Il-sung and his mother Kim Jong-suk, anti-Japanese women general, to a film studio. One spring day in 1949 when he was seven years old he went there and joined in previewing the working film My Home Village, the first of its kind in Korea. The film showed the winter scenes of the falling snow. At this sight Comrade Kim Jong-il shook his head dubiously and told an official of the film studio that he wondered why no snow was found on the heads and shoulders of the characters while it came down copiously. The official blushed with shame in spite of himself because Comrade Kim Jong-il was right. He noticed that a bad job was made of trick shots. Comrade Kim Jong-il again remarked that the snow was not lifelike, and asked the official if it was bits of cotton wool. It was true. Bits of white cotton wool were sprinkled to make them look like snowflakes, but they were too crude to produce the intended effect. Afterwards, these scenes were re-photographed.”
Later “anecdotes” in the booklet sound a little more convincing but they are all from the late 1960s on, when Kim Jong-il started to made his “guidance” visits to the Korean Film Studio almost daily affairs. He had the powers of a big Hollywood studio head of the 1930s, and wanted to put them to a more creative use than complaining about prop details. Kim Jong-il wanted to produce films. Not just any films – he wouldn’t make anything less than “Immortal Classics.”
Although Kim Jong-il kept a “low profile” while working on those “immortal classics” by not being mentioned in the film’s credits – and all North Korean info maintains that he only gave “guidance” but never acknowledge Kim Jong-il being anything like a “producer”, a huge painting covering a whole wall in the entrance hall of the Korea Film Studio, however, contradicts those statements. Depicting the filming of a battle scene in the first “immortal classic” Kim Jong-il was involved with, an anti-Japanese guerilla movie named Sea of Blood and made in 1968, he stands there, with his arms crossed over his chest, looking down at the filmed mayhem from a hill in the pose of a Roman emperor in a 19th century battle painting, overlooking, say, the destruction of Carthage. A big display board in the same room lists more than 10.000 visits to the studio by Kim Jong-il until 1993. After that, they apparently stopped counting.
As director of Sea of Blood, former South Korean director Choe Ik-gyu, who had come to North Korea in 1950 to escape a crackdown on leftist filmmakers by strongman Rhee Sung-man, was chosen. In South Korea, he had in 1946 shot the leftist-nationalist film Viva Freedom that didn’t win him any sympathies from Rhee Sung-man. In the North however he proved with the anti-Japanese resistance movie Five Guerilla Brothers (1950s) that he was a man ready to spread the gospel according to Kim Il-sung. Based on a stage play by the same name, supposedly written by Great Leader Kim Il-sung himself at the time when he was an anti-Japanese guerilla fighter, Sea of Blood tells the story of a mother who experiences 1930’s Japanese oppression the worst way: Japanese collective punishment against villagers that support the anti-Japanese guerilla. Her children join Kim Il-sung’s “Korean People’s Revolutionary Army” (KPRA) while the mother becomes both a Communist women organizer in her town and a smuggler of explosives to the KPRA rebels deep in the forest. The Korean authorities acting on Japanese command catch and torture her but she won’t budge. The guerilla lay siege to the walled town she’s held at. The mother kills the guards and opens the gate of the town… Its great drama and very violent.
Intrigued by the apparent domestic success of Sea of Blood, Kim Jong-il headed for his next project – which would be released in 1972 under the title Flower Girl, directed again by Kim Jong-il’s now favorite Choe Ik-gyu, together with co-director Pak Hak.
With Flower Girl Kim Jong-il finally got to do what he wanted: making a really great, moving film of epic proportions. It’s in color, set in the late 1920s, early 1930s and again based on a supposedly Kim Il-sung written play.
A poor mother and her children work at an evil landlord/landlady’s house. The people they work for are so mean, the son of the poor mother finally lashes out at them. He goes to jail. The mother continues to be humiliated by the feudal landowners while the older daughter sells flowers on the street that she has picked in the mountains. Her little sister (blinded by the landowners when they threw a pot of hot water at her) joins the flower girl once, singing in the street. That makes a lot more money than selling flowers but the mother severely reprimands her: singing and begging is even worse than working hard and being humiliated. Singing on the street – that is like prostitution! The flower girl starts a long walk across the country to see the brother in jail – only to be told that he has died. Being left alone, the blind little sister goes crazy – and disappears. No hope for our flower girl who is on the verge of dying, starving on the road… Until, within the last 10 minutes of the film, everything is solved. The son has not died but escaped from prison and joined Kim Il-sung’s “army”. He rescues the blind little kid, and also the flower girl who in one big revenge burns the faces of the oppressive landowner couple by throwing boiling food at their evil mugs.
The artistic qualities of the “Flower Girl” did finally bring an international break-through for NK cinema: it won a “Prix Special”, coming with a medal and an ornamental flower pot, at the 1972 Karlovy Vary Film Festival in Czechoslovakia.
Emboldened by the newfound international reputation, Kim went for his next historical epic: An Jung-gun Shoots Ito Hirobumi. If Flower Girl left doubts as to what extent the film is actually about Japanese involvement in the unfolding story, An Jung-gun… is a straight anti-Japanese story. It purports to be as historically correct as possible, detailing the moves made by Japanese special emissary Ito Hirobumi to annex Korea to Japan. The “success story” of evil Ito is counterpointed by the actions of a group of Korean nationalists. It goes into a lot of finer historical details – like the “debt-paying movement” in the early 1900s when a lot of wealthy and not so wealthy Koreans parted from their valuables to pay the national debts the country owed to Japan. All that failed in the end and Japan annexed Korea in 1910 – thanks to clever mastermind Ito. In the same year, 1910, young Korean nationalist An Jung-gun shot Ito at the train station in Harbin, then Russia, now part of China.
Released in 1979 and directed by Om Gil Son, An Jung Gung… however was clearly inferior to Flower Girl. The Czech in Karlovy Vary thought the same and didn’t hand out any special flowerpot this time.
Kim Jong-il did not only produce films and give his “on-the-spot-guidance” to film crews at work – he also had aspirations as a film scholar. In 1973, he published his book “On the Art of Cinema”, outlining his views of how to create films. The book became the bible of North Korean filmmaking – all directors, actors, technicians, etc. have been working along the precious principles laid down in the book ever since. So they claim. Have they really read it? The 329-page tome is basically unreadable. Making points obvious to film professionals since the dawn of cinema in an excruciatingly boring way, it feels like brain-damaging stupidity after the first few pages without saying anything new to anyone with any practical movie-making experience. But who is going to tell that to the “Leader”?
By the late 1970s however, sensing perhaps that his domestically groomed directors from the Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts lacked a bit in terms of international standards and thinking back on the great contributions South Korean Choe Ik-gyu made to his masterpieces, Kim Jong-il clearly needed fresh blood flowing into the inbred NK movie scene. A really good and famous South Korean director would be perfect, one with a sharp eye towards social conflicts…
Shin Sang-ok proved to be the perfect man of choice. He had learned his craft as a director being the assistant to Choe Ik-gyu filming Viva Freedom in 1946. He ascended to be one of South Korea’s biggest and most controversial directors well into the 1970s, running his own studio, producing social-realist masterpieces like A Flower in Hell (1958) as well as genre films like the 1961 historical drama Yeongsangun. In the 1960s, with Shin Film Studio he ran the biggest studio in South Korea at the time. By the mid-70s however, his luck had run out. His films lost money, and his pretty open depiction of sexuality (well, “open” for Korean standards of the time) got him into troubles with the censorship office of dictator Park Chung-hee. In November 1975, his inclusion of two censored scenes in Rose and Wild Dog, as well as his announcement to make a movie about the kidnapping of dissident (and later president) Ki Dae-jung by Park Chung-hee’s secret service from exile in Japan, caused the South Korean government to revoke Shin Film’s certificate.
Shin Sang-ok began to make movies in Hong Kong – movies like the 1978 women-in-prison sexploiter Revenge in the Tiger Cage about a female concentration camp in the Japanese-created state of Manchukoku in Manchuria in the 1930s.
According to Shin, at that time Kim Jong-il had already sensed his desperation – and Kim, unbeknownst to Shin, began financing Shin’s Hong Kong films through North Korea-affiliated investors. A sly preparation of what was to come… Was Kim testing what Shin was able to do with NK money?
In January 1978, Choi Eun-hee, legendary South Korean actress and Shin Sang-ok’s estranged wife, suddenly disappeared from Hong Kong. In July of the same year, Shin also disappeared.
We will not know the exact details of what happened then till the North Korean secret police archives are open to the public – which might take a while. If we believe Shin Sang-ok what he says about the events now (after having defected from North Korea in 1986), they were both kidnapped by the North Koreans and taken to Pyongyang. Considering Sin’s desperation at the time of his disappearance and a possible offer to come to North Korea, one should take the kidnapping story with a grain of salt. Japanese film critic and friend of Shin Sang-ok at that time, Nishida Tetsuo, for example says in his book “Kyokoo no Eizoo” (“Fictional Image”) that Shin Sang-ok told him he received an offer to make movies in North Korea, and that he planned to go there.
Nobody in the outside world knew where Shin and Choi were until they re-surfaced at the 1984 Karlovy Vary film festival, telling the international press that they had voluntary moved up north and presenting Shin’s first Northern production An Emissary of No Return.
The film was a historical piece based on a play penned allegedly by Kim Il-sung and detailing the events leading to the harakiri of Korean emissary Ri Jun in front of the international delegates of the “2nd The Hague International Peace Conference” in 1907. Ri Jun thought he could shock the international community and get the Western powers to help reversing the Ito Hirobumi-drawn Japanese-Korean Protective Treaty of 1905, which essentially subjugated Korea under Japanese leadership. He didn’t succeed.
The following year saw Shin directing Pulgasari – the film he is most well known for internationally. Inspired by the on-going Japanese kaiju (monster-movie) series Gojira (= Godzilla), Shin, with the full support of Godzilla-loving Kim Jong-il, went out to make the first North Korean monster movie.
Based on an old Korean legend, Pulgasari tells the story of a farmers’ uprising in the days of the Koryo dynasty (935 A.D. to 1395). The governor’s soldiers confiscate all iron from the farmers – their tools, their pots and pans. But the farmers can’t make a living without those things. An old blacksmith gets arrested for rebellious activities – he refuses the governor’s order to forge the confiscated metal into swords. Held prisoner in a wooden hut, he sculpts a little figure out of the rice his daughter smuggles in – a little dragon-style toy with bullhorns on the head. The blacksmith dies in prison and his daughter Ami (played by beautiful Jang Son-hui), inherits the figure. While sewing, she cuts her finger and blood drops onto the figure and it comes alive as a little critter. Being cute in the beginning, it eats all iron available – and grows quickly. It’s a huge monster soon, now named Pulgasari, strong as all monsters are and invincible of course. To no surprise, Pulgasari fights with the farmers against the evil authorities and soon he’s the farmers’ wunderwaffe: nothing can stop him. He stomps the king’s soldiers to mush by the hundreds and when they trap him in a cage and try to burn him, he just heats up (he’s become by now an iron creature), glows red and jumps into the nearest river, boiling the soldiers who fled there alive. They fire rockets at him (yes, the Chinese and Koreans used primitive rockets already 700 years ago) and try to kill him any way they can but Pulgasari remains the undying friend of the farmers – smashing even the emperor’s palace to ensure victory. The farmers win the rebellion and chase the feudal lords off their territory. But Pulgasari who had been eating the metal weapons of the enemies now becomes a burden: he eats the farming tools of the people he used to help, their pots and pans. To rescue her village from starvation, the blacksmith’s daughter hides in a big bell. Pulgasari eats the bell and with it the girl. But he is meant to eat iron, not girls. Upon tasting the blacksmith daughter, he explodes into concrete-looking fragments. A tiny Pulgasari is running around the debris, hit by a light beam and dissolving… The blacksmith’s daughter is sleeping in the midst of the rubble with a tear on her face… End.
To be as close to the Godzilla original as he could get, Shin had flown in several technicians and special effects experts from the Toho Studios in Japan, where the original Godzilla movies are made. The actor wearing the Pulgasari rubber suit, Satsuma Kenpachiro, had destroyed Tokyo several times before, being the man acting in the Godzilla outfit. He would later write a book about his experiences in North Korea, called “North Korea Seen Through the Eyes of Godzilla.” The film finished, Kim Jong-il was quite delighted – and sent Shin Sang-ok together with Choi Eun-hee on a mission to the West in early 1986. They were promoting North Korean cinema at the Berlin Film Festival, at the Cannes Film Festival …and in Vienna.
Kidnapped to North Korea or not, by now both Shin and Choi were sick of living under the North Korean regime and just wanted one thing: to get the hell out of there. In Vienna, they got the chance to evade the guards Kim Jong-il had sent along and made a dash to the American embassy, asking for asylum. The Americans flew them out to Los Angeles and they resumed filmmaking there.
Shin had made a total of 7 films in North Korea and his defection must have been a hard blow to Kim Jong-il and his film industry. However, the “Dear Leader” came up with a new bold concept: making the most gigantic film series in cinema history. Nation and Destiny was supposed to consist of 100 parts.
The project started in 1990 – 7 one-hour-long installments were produced that year alone. It was announced as a new “immortal classic” from the day of it’s inception and sure enough, part 1 and 2 of the series went on to win the “Golden Torch”, main prize of the 3rd Pyongyang International Film Festival in 1992.
According to a directive by Kim Jong-il, the multi-part feature should be based on the song “Best is My Country,” Here some of the lyrics of that song, written by Choe Jun-gyong:
I saw flowers blooming, too
In the fields of an alien land.
But none so pretty
As the flowers of my country.
Refrain: Vast is the world
I looked around.
Best is the country
I call my own.
I’d drink a cup of water
Offered by a foreign friend.
But never did it taste sweeter
Than the spring water of my own home.
Basing a 100 movie series on that song? Quite a task! As of today, 56 parts have been produced, all praising the own country (like every other North Korean film) but never touching on “Vast is the world, I looked around.”
Spending much of it’s resources on the Nation and Destiny soap, the North Korean film industry went into further decline during the 1990s – winning not even a single major prize (Gold, Silver or Bronze Torch) at the own festivals in 1994 and 1996, let alone any foreign festival.
Economic problems became pressing, too. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the dissolving of the Soviet Union in 1991 and China’s switch to a market-based economy, the former international markets of the NK film industry broke away. The same political developments effected the whole of North Korean society: the formerly generous economic support handed out to North Korea by its communist “brothers” stopped flowing in. The country was on the verge of bankruptcy, widespread starvation set in.
In addition to all of that, in 1994 Great Leader Kim Il-sung died. He remained (and still remains) however “president for eternity” while his son Kim Jong-il took over the post of Great Leader – for the first time in history a communist head of state inherited his power dynasty-style. The era of the so-called “Arduous March” began – an era of famines killing up to 2 million North Koreans during which Kim Jong-il had to consolidate his power.
But did allied bombing of Germany’s Babelsberg studios at the end of World War II cause another movie-mad dictator, Adolf Hitler, to cease film production? No! He would even withdraw soldiers from the front, dress them in Napoleon-time uniforms and have them shoot grand-style color pictures to enhance the morals of the population – like the 1944 Veit Harlan epic Kolberg.
A hostile general situation would not keep Kim Jong-il away from producing films, either. To the contrary – if he wanted to stay in power now, rice and kimchi was not what he had to feed his people with – he needed to feed them propaganda to make them stay in line. “Indeed, in the middle of a famine in 1997, North Korea is believed to have spent $ 780 million on propaganda.” South Korean newspaper Korea Herald reported later. The time of starvation was turned into a propaganda campaign named the “Arduous March”, which blamed bad weather conditions for the poor harvests and of course, as always, the “imperialists” for everything that went wrong and that whipped the population into building ever bigger monuments to Kim Il-sung and his Juche ideology. Of course, some of the pressing problems had to be finally addressed cinematically – the endless repetition of anti-Japanese guerilla fables alone wouldn’t do anymore.
One important film to tackle this task was the 1997 feature Myself in Distant Future, directed by Jang In-hak. Somberly starting with lots of (cotton flake looking) snow streaming down, the clock on Pyongyang train station showing midnight on New Year’s eve and an abundance of North Korean flags being on display – we know, we are in here for something important. Celebratory music playing, we see a young man being escorted to a train by tearfully waving people. Once inside the train, the young man tells his story to a journalist in the restaurant car. He used to be a bad guy, actually…Flashback and real start of the movie. Sin-jun, the young man (played by Kim Myong-mun) is a fairly lazy young man who believes that all the honors of his labor hero architect father will automatically be his as well. He lives in luxury at his parents’ apartment in a Pyongyang skyscraper and does nothing but dream, play Nintendo games, listen to dance music (North Korean dance music but it obviously stands in here for the illegal reception of South Korean broadcasts) and argue with his father. The father is flabbergasted by what he has to hear from his son. In one crucial dialogue, he berates his son for taking the luxury he lives in for granted and not doing anything for the improvement of the country. He scolds the son for breaking off his education at the “Institute of Engineering” and having only cared about securing a place at the “University for International Relations”. Failing that, the rotten son is nothing else today than a simple driver at the Foreign Ministry. Ha! The dialogue lines mean that the son cared only about getting out of the country – or else tried to stay in close contact with foreigners. The father continues his scolding: “The whole country is in the period of the Arduous March and you don’t participate in any way.” “Uhhm, the Arduous March is only a temporary campaign”, the son replies. What an anti-social statement! The “Arduous March” was the main theme of North Korean propaganda throughout the 1990s and this guy says it’s “only a temporary campaign”?
The plot continues with Sin-jun meeting a beautiful girl he immediately falls in love with, Su-yang (Kim Hye-gyong). To his astonishment, she works in the Shock Brigades that build skyscrapers in super-human speed. And unbeknownst to him, his father has just met the same girl, as she was a model worker on the realization of one of his architectural designs. The girl is just finishing her time as a Shock Brigade laborer and returning to her home village (in the vicinity of Korea’s holy mountain Mount Paektu, where else) to help in the farming work “the Party worries so much about these days”. The Party had all reasons to worry about farm work indeed, 1997 was the worst year of starvation. Sin-jun, the spoiled kid, volunteers at her farm for a few weeks – his only motivation being to be close to her. At the end of his stay, he confesses his love to her. She rejects him, telling him that working at her own village and making it more successful is more important to her than following him to Pyongyang.
They meet again in Pyongyang a while later when she is visiting. He makes a new proposal to her – and has to hear her real reasons for rejecting him: she was working hard in cold winter with her hands bleeding to build the skyscraper he is living in – and he did nothing to deserve that. He is just a lazy fuck, depending on his famous father.
Now, Sin-jun is really moved and wants to change himself. He goes to her village a second time – to settle there. And to do something good for the village and the country… like inventing a wood-fuel tractor. With a lot of help from his mother he succeeds and proves the new tractor’s worth by driving it along a wintry forest road that has to stand in as an important mountain pass, pulling a trailer loaded with potatoes, and feeding the wood-fire engine with his own shoes to get the tractor going. Of course, that makes him a labor hero himself, nets him a medal and he get the girl.
A love story? What the film is really about is the problem that a lot of the children of the elite don’t want to play the game of the Great Leader anymore and that they want to get out of the country. The film doesn’t really offer any resolution to that problem… the unruly guy has to meet a girl by chance to get back in the line of revolutionary heroes. And what about that wood-fuel tractor? They exist since more than 50 years and drove around in post-war Germany already. They are a symbol of poverty. Inventing that thing anew? Was Jang In-hak trying to make a subversive joke here? Probably not – the film is heavy-duty propaganda. But it reveals to a certain degree that even the toughest propagandists had run out of ideas on how to deal with the problems the leadership has been facing.
In Myself in Distant Future, North Korea looks like a rich country with plenty of food. In fact, the characters eat all the time, carry bulging bags of apples and harvest fields of ripe wheat. But in real life, the famine went on and eventually not even the official propaganda could ignore the problem any longer or just deal with it in hints in the subtexts of films… So, why not turn the poorly managed paddy fields into new heroic battlegrounds? That’s exactly what Kang Jung-mo’s 1999 Forever in Our Memory does.
The film starts out like a war movie: regimental commander Ri Chol-suk (Ri Ik-sung) receives the order to march with his men into a rural area and wage a war for higher agricultural output and to defend the country against droughts and typhoons. Together with the local state farm folks, they start the battle: turning swamps into paddy fields, planting the rice even after midnight while lighting the fields with torches, and when a tractor’s tires go flat, the commander has the tires of his personal jeep planted on the tractor – thus canceling out a visit to his ill wife in the hospital. A true hero fighting for the fatherland!
The deed of successfully planting the crops and claiming new arable land is finally done – green paddies up to the horizon – when a drought hits the country. Now, the brave soldiers and farmers carry water in buckets for miles to save the fragile plants. The sun burns with demonic intensity… but suddenly that same sun, still in the midst of the drought, is eulogized by a hymnist musical score. Cut to the farmers carrying water. A girl yells the news to them: “The Great Leader has just been here!” Shaken by religious love, they run into the village – and we see a convoy of cars disappearing on the horizon and the happy regimental commander tells the farmers that, yes, the Great Leader has just visited here and he is in good health. To a hymnist score, the farmers kneel down and touch the tire tracks the great Leader left in the dust.
The Great Leader, the “Sun of the 21st Century” as propaganda calls him, treated as a real deity. But right when the sun was scorching the plants that same sun announced the Great Leader. What’s that going to mean? A thoughtless script? Or a deliberate indication that the Great Leader, the “Sun” he is, is killing the country? A hint to the audiences that the real “natural disaster” is the leadership of the country? Unlikely. The movie is so full of glorification of Juche, the leader, the military and the hard working, deeply believing common folks that it is almost unavoidable that sometimes the hails cancel each other out.
The drought overcome, it’s a typhoon now that threatens the harvest. The following scenes one has to see to believe. The flood is introduced by fierce waves running over the dykes and easily uprooting telephone poles. And how do the soldiers and farmers keep their paddy fields dry? By a few thousands of them standing on top of the dyke, their arms linked, yelling “Long live Kim Il-sung!” into the face of the angry ocean and keeping the flood away with their own bodies. No ocean wave can break this spirit of unity between the army and the people!
The harvest is saved and the heroes return to their barracks. The army and the people have just won another victory!
An incredible piece of hyperbole? Definitely. But North Korean cinema has always been ripe with having the characters accomplish unlikely feats powered by nothing than their will, the strength of their love to the leader and the Juche ideology. In fact, whenever the word “impossible” turns up in a North Korean movie, there will be a cut to a group of dedicated people fiercely accomplishing what has just been called “impossible”. Be that a military task in a war movie or the building of a bridge, dam, highway or whatever…
Still, the dyke scene in Forever in Our Memory is unprecedented in its suicidal loss of any connection to reality. Was that how North Korea saw itself at the time? Standing on top of a dyke and defending itself by nothing than their bodies and their belief in the leader against the flood of problems hitting the country?
In June 2000, Kim Dae-jung went to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong-il at a summit meeting. That move seemed a great success – both parts of Korea ended the previously customary hostile propaganda against each other, vague talks about unification took place and great plans of reconciliation were made.
Pulgasari opened in Seoul – the first North Korean movie to do so. With devastating results. Only 500 people showed up in all of movie-crazy Seoul to see the film, which meant theaters were running shows with hardly any people watching. Many theaters pulled the plug on the movie even before the first week was over.
South Korean newspapers covering the disaster tried to explain that the low-tech, campy special effects were not attractive to South Korean youngsters who buy the bulk of the tickets. Maybe so… but not very likely. This seems to be a better explanation: until 1999, Japanese movies were not allowed to be imported into South Korea. Thus, no real Godzilla cult could develop that would embrace strange Godzilla offshoots like Pulgasari. The rather weird South Korean clone of Godzilla, Grand Evil Monster Yonggari (1967, by Kim Ki-duk, re-made in 1999) was of no big help here. And the fact that Pulgasari originated from the North was certainly no enticement for the Southern youth – most of them don’t give a shit about anything North Korean. They are happy if they don’t hear a word about those uncool cousins up North… those guys and gals with the funny accent who aren’t even able to tell the difference between Armani and Versace!
The (North) Korean Film Export & Import Company didn’t care about the losses the Southern distributors incurred with the release of Pulgasari. They had their money in the bank. And the Pulgasari disaster didn’t deter the entrepreneurial folks at Seoul’s Narai Film Company, so they shelled out a whopping $320,000 for the South Korean rights of the latest Northern movie extravaganza, Souls Protest.
Souls Protest was not a monster movie – it was the North Korean Titanic! And it was overtly anti-Japanese. The relations between South Korea and Japan had soured in the Spring and Summer of 2001 with the Japanese government approving of the publication of a school history book that Koreans claimed, “whitewashed Japanese war crimes” and with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visiting Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine – in which all Japanese victims of World War II are honored, including convicted and executed Japanese war criminals. Demonstrations took place in Seoul to rail against Japan and Koizumi – and people seemed ready to pay money to see something anti-Japanese – like Souls Protest.
Made by Kim Chun-song, a Japanese-born Korean director “who had repatriated to the DPRK,” the film tells a story with a strong historical background – the explosion and sinking of the Japanese vessel Ukishima Maru in the immediate days following the defeat of Japan in 1945. The ship was carrying Koreans back home who had been forced laborers in Japan during the wartime.
The number of victims and the reasons for the explosion are still under debate up this day. On August 23rd, 2001, a Japanese court ruled that 15 of the surviving Koreans would receive $375.000 in compensation altogether – although it held on to the always maintained Japanese stance that the ship hit an American mine left over from the war.
On the very next day, Souls Protest was up on the screen in Seoul – telling the story from the side of the Korean survivors. According to them, at least 7.000 people had been on the boat, thousands of them perished (and not only 500 as the Japanese court said) and Tokyo was entirely to blame for the explosion – the ship was sunk intentionally to kill potential witnesses of Japanese war crimes. A point of view not only held up in Pyongyang but in certain quarters in Seoul as well. That screening, taking place on the 56th anniversary day of the sinking, was a special event for survivors of the sinking.
What are the details of the film itself? From what could be gained from press articles covering that special screening, it is North Korea’s attempt to hit international markets with its own version of Titanic. 10,000 extras from the Korean People’s Army were recruited, the director had to watch the original Titanic more than 100 times to get the details right, it features a fictional love story resembling the one between Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in James Cameron’s Titanic, it is quite entertaining with lots of special effect and it was as grand-style as possible – you guess who might be the mastermind behind such an “immortal masterpiece”. Back home in the North, the film ran in theaters and on TV and allegedly was a smashing success. Not so in the South. Opened soon after, it sunk on the box office quicker than the unlucky boat itself and without any fanfare. The anti-Japanese mongering didn’t help at all.
Since that 2001 release of Souls Protest, no new North Korean movie has been spotted anywhere outside of North Korea. Are we in for a big surprise or a big disappointment at the next Pyongyang Film Festival? Will we get a visa to attend??
Johannes Schönherr is a freelance writer and independent film curator.
This article was originally published in Film International 8, vol. 2, no. 2, 2004.
Read the story of an Italian/North Korean action movie joint venture: ‘TEN ZAN – Ferdinando Baldi’s Ultimate Mission’ also by Schönherr.