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Will North Korean films ever be more than propaganda?

(Aim High in Creation!/A Unicorn Film production)

(Aim High in Creation!/A Unicorn Film production)

Sugar-coated propaganda films are popular in North Korea – but they gloss over reality. Could things be changing? Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore reports.

In the Technicolor world of Comrade Kim Goes Flying, the sky is a dazzling turquoise blue and the grass is emerald green. The characters are chirpy and well fed. They work in the mines and on building sites, laughing and joking as they heave heavy bricks in the sunshine.

The kitsch co-production between the UK, Belgium and North Korea, the first of its kind, tells the story of Kim Yong Mi, a pretty young miner who dreams of becoming a trapeze artist. First, she must overcome her fear of heights and the taunts of a male star acrobat who sneers: “You think you can crawl out of the ground and fly like us?”

The answer, of course, is yes she can. But while this candy-coated movie glosses over the realities of North Korea – a totalitarian state that suffers from widespread malnutrition, with hundreds of thousands festering in gulags −it makes one key distinction from the usual propaganda fare. The fun and feisty chick-flick stars a likeable protagonist who doggedly follows her desires. And she follows them not for the state, but for herself.

Strong women are a staple of North Korean movies – but in most cases put the people before themselves. In A Broad Bellflower (1987) the heroine puts her duty to the state above romance. She sings merrily to the boys: “Before I become a tractor driver / I won’t marry you”. In the rom-com Urban Girl Comes to Get Married (1993) a snobby fashion designer travels to the countryside for a work trip. There she falls in love with a humble duck farmer, ditches her pretty clothes for a smock, and shovels dirt to help the nation.

Comrade Kim, then, is different. “To a North Korean audience, it is the first time a girl has ever said no to people. It is really a blast, like opening a window and letting all the fresh air and colour in,” explains Brit Nick Bonner, who co-directed the film alongside Belgian Anja Daelemans and North Korean Kim Gwang-hun, best known for his military dramas. “Just making a film without mention of the leaders, that is about as far as you can push.”

Watch and learn

In North Korea, the cinema has long been a tool of indoctrination. Kim Jong-il, who ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011, was a film fanatic who won the favour of his father and the Workers' Party by making propaganda movies. “They don’t have reality TV, they don’t have the internet, they don’t have video on demand,  they have cinema,” says Anna Broinowski, an Australian filmmaker who was given unprecedented access to the North Korean film industry for her 2013 documentary Aim High in Creation! “This is one of the reasons they are in a state of reverence [for films].”

(Aim High in Creation!/A Unicorn Film production)

(Aim High in Creation!/A Unicorn Film production)

Broinowski took her title from Kim Jong-il’s manifesto On the Art of the Cinema. In reality, that meant producing movies that lionised the state and sanctified the leaders. No films depict Kim Jong-il  or Kim Il-sung in person – they are too holy to be played by actors. In Forever In Our Memory (1999), for example, the audience hears that Kim Jong-il wants to “solve the problems on the farms” – a rare mention on film of the devastating 1990s famine. After Kim has done just that the audience gets a glimpse of his Mercedes driving into the sunset with the villagers falling lovingly into the tyre tracks.

North Korean cinema enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s when the state churned out around 30 to 40 films a year. The quality was elevated when the country kidnapped the feted South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, the actress Choi Un Hui, in the late ‘70s. After five years behind bars the pair agreed to collaborate, producing some of North Korea’s best movies, including the cult Godzilla-inspired classic Pulgasari (1985), about a giant monster that frees downtrodden farmers. (Shin and Choi escaped just a year after its release in 1986.)

While North Korean movies span a number of genres, from sappy romances to pro-atom-bomb thrillers, they all include similar hallmarks: a noble working class hero or heroine, some catchy musical numbers, and at least one obligatory rousing speech about the greatness of the leader or the country. Watching the films is like entering a time warp. War scenes are created by explosions with actual tanks and guns rather than relying on special effects. Filmmakers still shoot on celluloid with post-recorded sound and dubbing is the norm. 

Enemy of the state

Above all, films must further the socialist cause. To do this they need an enemy: namely, the Japanese or Americans. The latter were played in the past by US defectors such as James Joseph Dresnok, who crossed the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas in the 1960s. In Aim High in Creation!, Broinowski, who was cast in a North Korean movie about the 1968 capture of the American spy ship USS Pueblo, acts opposite one of Dresnok’s tall, fair-haired sons.

“Americans are portrayed as buffoonish, often causing their own downfall by arrogance and stupidity. The Japanese are depicted as pure evil,” explains Simon Fowler, creator of the blog northkoreanfilms.com. “The older films show a harsh life where the Japanese imperialists brutalise the population before the ‘heroic communists’ come in and ‘throw off the yoke of oppression’ creating a Utopia.”

(Aim High in Creation!/A Unicorn Film production)

(Aim High in Creation!/A Unicorn Film production)

For the populace, film is a welcome escape from the drudgery of everyday life and one of the few options for evening entertainment. On a recent trip to Pyongyang, my guide enthusiastically pointed out cinemas in the capital. He said he goes once a month. “I love action,” he said. “Why not?” Another guide in his thirties declared proudly: “Our General Kim Jong-il liked art very much so he introduced new methods to make films,” adding:  “I take my girlfriend on dates there.”

For any creators of art in a totalitarian state there are risks. Broinowski recalls interviewing a defected North Korean actor in Seoul. She remembers he said “that some of his colleagues... had been on overseas study trips. When they came back they were executed. He was worried he was next.”

For those filmmakers still working in North Korea, it is sadness about their waning influence, rather than fear of punishment, that Broinowski noted. In the past the best directors not only received a golden rice bowl but Rolex watches, apartments, and cars. But when Kim Jong-il started to funnel money into the armed forces in the “military first” Songun Policy in the 1990s, the film industry suffered. One director Broinowski worked with was immaculately groomed and “still had the gold Rolex, the perfectly pressed shirt and the pressed khaki pants.” But he lived in a scruffy apartment off the side of a dirt track on the outskirts of Pyongyang.

As for Comrade Kim Goes Flying, the absence of ham-fisted political content has worked in its favour. Since it premiered at the Pyongyang International Film Festival in 2012 the $1.2m movie has shown at  festivals worldwide and became the first North Korean film to be aired in South Korea since 2003. At home, where it is now touring the North Korean countryside, it is a hit.

“They haven’t had blockbuster films [before],” says Bonner, who describes one screening so packed that the audience spilled over from the seats onto the theatre's steps. Whether the film helps carve a new era in North Korean cinema – one in which individualism is valued and entertainment is elevated above propaganda – remains to be seen. But as the film’s strapline says, “Whoever you are, wherever you are, anything is possible.”

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