Interview: Johannes Schönherr, North Korea cinema expert

Even a cursory google around the internet on the subject of North Korean cinema will lead you, quite rightly, in the direction of Johannes Schönherr.

My first introduction to Schönherr came when I discovered that his memoir “Trashfilm Roadshow” contained within it a chapter on his experiences travelling to North Korea in search in search of weird and wacky movies to fit in with the obscure titles he’d been touring around the world.

His delightfully boozy adventures take him from his native Germany to the US, North Korea and, finally, to Japan where he now resides and the whole book is definitely worth a read to discover how those films “from the outside” can be cherished in some many different situations and settings.

Having written a number of articles on North Korean cinema, I was pleased to see Johannes pop up on the comments section of this site. After exchanging a few emails (and a few rare North Korean DVDs) I decided it would be the perfect time to interview him for the site. This year will see the release of his opus “North Korean Cinema” which will finally provide the world with an English-language history of the cinema of the DPRK. I, for one, cannot wait for the book to be released. Below is the interview I conducted recently via email.

DPRK Films: Can you explain briefly how you became interested in North Korean cinema?

JS: Will try to do it as briefly as possible but still, it’s a longer story. I’ve always been interested in strange, far-out films. In films, that don’t usually run in the neighborhood theater. Back in the 1980s, I joined an anarchist cinema collective in Nuremberg, where I was living at the time. There, I learned everything about running a theater…  and I could book all the weird movies into the program that I had read about but hadn’t been able to see.

That was the video age but I always wanted to see films on the big screen, projected from celluloid in front of an audience.

I was very much into American underground movies at the time, the films by Richard Kern or the Kuchar brothers. I got into contact with some of those underground film directors and arranged European tours for them.

But after a while, arranging tours for other people wasn’t that satisfying anymore. I wanted to go on the road with movies myself… and explore new territories. Like Japan for example. My then Japanese girlfriend arranged a tour of me doing shows with a program of American underground shorts in 1997… and I loved it.

At the same time, the Film House in Copenhagen asked me to program a sort of travelling festival of Japanese cyberpunk and to tour it through Europe. I did that and it went well.

So, after American punk porn and Japanese cyberpunk, where do you go next? It was 1998 and North Korea was all over the news for shooting a rocket over Japan. I had read somewhere that they make movies in North Korea and I thought, ‘Now, checking those ones out would be a trip’.

By coincidence, a friend running a small independent theater in Berlin told me that North Korean diplomats came to his office every week, always with a movie title list in hand and asking him to get them 35mm prints of those titles as quickly as possible. Probably, they were getting movies straight for Kim Jong Il’s viewing pleasure.

Anyway, my friend introduced me to those diplomats and things went on from there. I got invited to Pyongyang in 1999, watched movies there for a week, then selected about 10 of them and took them on a tour through Europe.

I got invited back to Pyongyang for the film festival in 2000 but basically, after the tour, my direct involvement with the North Koreans ended.

At that Pyongyang visit in 2000, though, I bought a book called Korean Film Art which more or less catalogued the major North Korean films up to 1985.

With that book and the North Korean films I had seen so far as a base, I started to research the history of North Korean cinema.

Why? Because it seemed nobody else had done that before. Well, people have done it but they didn’t publish much about it in English. So, I just went deeper and deeper into it, found more and more material over the years… and I’m still love exploring North Korean cinema. North Korea is such a secretive place… but you can learn a lot about it from watching their movies. I don’t believe in any of the messages they try to get out with their movies… but I can see what kind of messages they try to get out and how they do it. Their films reveal a lot about North Korea’s genuine outlook on the world. Because those movies are basically made for a domestic audience, they don’t hold back in what they tell… they deliver the direct messages the leadership wants to convey to their people. Fascinating stuff.

DPRK Films: One of the first questions people ask me when they hear I write a blog about North Korean films is: “Are the films any good?” To me they are very, very interesting, but do you find you can get enjoyment out of them?

JS: If you can get the stories behind the movies, like how they were made, the people who made them, what the later fate was of some of the heroes portrayed, then it gets really interesting. In the most cases much more interesting than the movies themselves.

But yes, North Korea made some movies that I enjoy.

DPRK Films: What is your favourite DPRK film?

JS: There are a few. The films Shin Sang-ok made in North Korea are all very interesting, I think. Especially, of course, Pulgasari, Shin’s monster movie. Hong Kil Dong is a very good old-style martial arts film. It was not made by Shin but he initiated the production and the film was made very much in his spirit after his departure from North Korea.

My favorite North Korean film right now however is a Japanese – North Korean co-production named Somi-The Taekwon-do Woman. In North Korea, the film is known as Woman Warrior of Koryo. It’s martial arts period piece, set in the middle ages. Beautiful girl learns the martial arts and finally revenges her rebel parents who had been murdered by the decadent, evil governor. Simple story but beautifully told.

That film was made in 1997, with Japanese money but employing only North Korean cast and crew.

It has almost never played outside of North Korea yet and even there it got a very limited release. Basically, only one TV screening at New Year’s eve 97 / 98.

But there is a festival in London which plans to shows that film in September this year. I can’t go into details here… obviously the festival folks will want to do their own announcements once they got all their line-up together. But stay tuned. Definitely a movie worth seeing.

DPRK Films: In your book “Trashfilm Roadshow” you talk about your plane being held on the runway of Pyongyang Airport because a gold medal winning North Korean athlete was returning home. Did you later work out that this would have been Jong Song Ok and that her story would one day be made into a film called “Marathon Runner”? There’s even a scene in the film of the plane on the runway (an inadvertent way in which you crossed paths with DPRK film history)

JS: I didn’t know what was going on while I was the airport witnessing Jong Song Ok’s reception. But I was told soon after by the North Korean film export company staff that picked me up at the airport that it was all about a marathon girl who had won the gold medal in Seville, Spain.

Thousands of people were lined up on the streets of Pyongyang to greet her. I could see them from my hotel. Together with Swiss photographer / video filmer Nicholas Righetti, I went down to check out what was happing. Unattended by any minders. Nicholas carried a big video camera on his shoulder and filmed all those people waiting for Jong Song Ok coming through.

Suddenly, there was a North Korean film crew all around us. Filming us how we walked down in front of all those people and Nicholas filming them.

A year later, I was shown a documentary in Pyongyang titled The Laudable Daughter of Korea which was all about Jong Song Ok. It showed her reception back in Pyongyang after her victory… and suddenly Nicholas and I are in the picture. The narrator claims that we are the “world press” covering Jong’s reception in Pyongyang.

Marathon Runner was made a year or so after the documentary came out.

More recently Jong Song Ok seems to have fallen out of favor. She apparently made some mistake down the line and doesn’t appear in the lists of the honored sports persons anymore. In 1999 / 2000, she was a big hero… by now, who knows what became of her. She may be in a very unenviable situation now… but nobody knows what exactly happened to her.

DPRK Films: What was the hardest part about researching a book on the history of North Korean cinema?

JS: At the beginning, it was of course difficult to locate the films that I thought I would need to see. Once I got them, the hard part followed… a lot of them were really boring to watch. They all made sense in the bigger picture and I could learn a lot from them… but, yes, North Korea made a great number of movies that are really a pain to sit through.

DPRK Films: Were there any films that you were unable to get a hold of that you would love to see?

JS: There were a few. Especially the films starring Song Hye Rim, King Jong Il’s lover in the late 1960s and mother of his eldest son Kim Jong Nam. They were all withdrawn from distribution in the early 1970s… before the age of video. There seem to be no copies around. But aside from those, if you build up the right connections you can see pretty much anything. And that’s outside of North Korea, of course.

DPRK Films: How closely do you think Kim Jong-Il was involved in the development of North Korean cinema?

JS: Kim Jong Il made North Korean cinema what it is today. He understood how to produce movies, he had his artistic visions and he knew how to realize them.

North Korea made films before Kim Jong Il got involved. Kim Il Sung knew very well about the importance of cinema as a propaganda tool… but without Kim Jong Il North Korean cinema would have been just a small-scale propaganda mill.

DPRK Films: What are your best memories of the Pyongyang Film Festival?

JS: Running away from it and exploring Pyongyang on my own. Back in 2000, all festival guests stayed at the Koryo Hotel downtown. It was easy to get out of it.

Nowadays, everyone has to stay at the Yanggakdo Hotel which is located on an island in the Taedong River. Can’t go anywhere from there, I heard.

DPRK Films: Of all the stories you’ve heard about filmmaking in North Korea, which is the strangest you’ve come across?

JS: That would be the story of Shin Sang-ok. A South Korean director who made films in North Korea for a few years and then made a dramatic escape from there while he was in Vienna. The story is too long to be recounted here in detail. I wrote about it in some detail here.

DPRK Films: You hosted one of the very few seasons of North Korean films shown outside the west in Italy. What was the reaction from the audience?

JS: Actually, my North Korean film series premiered in Gothenburg, Sweden before going to Italy.

The audience reaction in Gothenburg was very interesting. The theater sold out for all the martial arts films I showed. The regular martial arts crowd came, dressed in their heavy metal T-shirts and what have you. They loved the movies.

I also showed Ten Zan, a really trashy North Korean – Italian co-production from 1988. People who saw the film there went years later onto to comment on the film there. It must have left them with quite some impression.

On the other hand, I also showed some real North Korean propaganda in Sweden. As you would expect, only a small crowd of people interested in the North Korean political situation showed up for those ones. All very serious people… academics and politicos.

It was very different later in Berlin. There, people reacted to the propaganda pictures with a healthy dose of cynicism. Paper headlines ran something like “The Most Decadent Thing to Do Tonight: Watch a North Korean Hero Epic While the Country Starves to Death”.

As for the Italian shows… they got good publicity but I don’t seem to have many recollections of unusual audience reactions.

DPRK Films: What do you think the future holds for North Korean movies? Are we going to see more branching out?

The films that are getting released now are still projects resulting from the Kim Jong Il era. Kim Jong Un doesn’t seem to have inherited Kim Jong Il’s artistic aspirations.

Films will be made in North Korea in the future, too, of course. But I don’t believe North Korea’s domestic film industry will come up with much worth seeing in the near future. Kim Jong Il is gone, after all.

I would expect some interesting movies made in international collaborations to come out, though.

Keep an eye of the site for more information on the release of North Korean Cinema as it comes in, and also details on future screenings of North Korean films in London and elsewhere. 

6 thoughts on “Interview: Johannes Schönherr, North Korea cinema expert

  1. Pingback: Somi – the Taekwon-do Woman screening in London | North Korean Films

  2. Pingback: A Rarity in North Korean Cinema | karthie

  3. Die Frage ist numehr, ist es politisch korrekt filmisches Propagandamaterial eines Schurkenstaates in festivaler Manier vorzufuehren. According to my understanding these films have nothing to do with art neither do they deserve to be called film-art. The dictator does use these films as a transporter to glorify its regime while millions are suffering and dying. Perhaps I am wrong but as a defender of democracy and freedom, since my early age, we should not become a tool of evil. Anyhow, Johannes did an interesting job and its very intersting to listen to him!

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