It’s difficult to over emphasize the importance of The Flower Girl (1972) in the history of North Korean cinema… and possibly even harder to find an analogous example in another country’s movie cannon. The US may have iconoclastic Citizen Kane (1941) and China the psycho-sexual drama Spring in a Small Town (1948) but there is a reverence paid to The Flower Girl that makes it far more than just the “greatest” film ever produced in the country.
Based on the revolutionary opera reportedly written by Kim Il-sung while imprisoned in Jilin prison in the 1930s, The Flower Girl has become the embodiment of the anti-Japanese struggle and helped elevate the film’s star Hong Yong-hee to the status of a god in her native country. (I mentioned before how the image of her in the film adorns a bank note.)
To anyone familiar with Communist films from China in the 1950s, ’60s and (to a certain extent) ’70s the plot will seem entirely familiar. (Quick shameless plug, if you’re not familiar with Chinese movies, buy my book.) The eponymous hero is struggling to get buy in Japanese controlled Korea of the 1930s. Everyday she picks flowers to sell at the local market to raise money for her ill mother. Indebted to an evil landlord (a stock character that can be found in countless movies of this period) the flower girl is constantly told she must work for the landlord in order to pay back the money her mother owes him.
After a series of sadistically unfair acts by the landlord towards the girl and her family, the film’s crescendo sees the girl’s long lost brother come into town with the Revolutionary Army and the landlord is overthrown.
Such a deus ex machina is particularly common in these type of films. No matter what situation the protagonists find themselves in the arrival of the Revolutionary Army is enough to help them overcome all of their problems and save the day.
Films such as this are a test of emotional endurance. With the main character in tears for practically half the film and a seemingly endless stream of bad luck befalling the whole family, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the audience was somehow being punished for some unknown crime. An interesting watch, but certainly not for the faint hearted. But it does make for a cracking karaoke ballad.