Book Review: North Korean Cinema: A History

This has been a long time coming.

It’s coming up to two years that I’ve been intermittently running this site. And before that it was a a good year or two that I was talking about writing “something” about North Korean cinema. The casual observer would well be within their rights to say that this site is haphazardly put together and rarely updated. It’s often because work or life get in the way. And after an 11-hour shift I more regularly opt for the easy watch, instead of delving into my bulging collection of DPRK films to watch and review.

Throughout the hours of time I’ve spent Googling for information on North Korean cinema – finding dealers to buy films, searching for books which reference anything to do with film production – there is one man who stands above them all in terms of North Korean cinema: Johannes Schönherr.

Among the throngs of websites trumpeting “facts” about Kim Jong-il’s cinephilia, the kidnapped stars from South Korea forced to make movies and the giant film library that served his love for Rambo and other Hollywood tosh, if you look deeply, you’ll find articles written by Johannes Schönherr.

Steering clear of those easy nuggets, his articles has managed to accumulate an outsiders view of the history of North Korean cinema. From interviewing Spaghetti Western director Ferdinando Baldi about the unbelievable Italian-North Korean co-production  Ten Zan: The Ultimate Mission (1988), to reviewing all of the films that Shin Sang-ok made during his time in North Korea, Schönherr has recorded for prosperity’s sake some marvellous adventures associated with North Korean cinema that those of us unable to read Korean may never have discovered.

So now comes the release of his excellent book North Korean Cinema: A History. Here, for the first time in English, we are given the opportunity to bring together pretty much everything available in English on the subject. Too long had snippets of information been contained in lofty academic texts, or merely hinted at in generalist newspaper articles. Exploring, thematically as well as chronologically the history of DPRK cinema, Schönherr charts the rise of the medium with reference to other Communist states.

Of course, we like Johannes Schönherr here on this site. He kindly comments on some of our articles. He’s even forwarded me material or highlighted an interesting news story from time-to-time that would be worth picking up on. But what we need to point out is that he’s actually knuckled down and written the only “essential” book on North Korean cinema that you could need.

By turns academic (when discussing the early years of development in the DPRK’s cinema), to anecdotal (on speaking about his experiences visiting the Pyongyang Film Festival, there is enough breadth in the book to appeal to a large number who are interested in not only film but in the DPRK itself.

As the DPRK begins to – inevitably – open up over time, who knows what more we can learn about Kim Jong-il’s cinema-loving regime. Perhaps there’s a huge amount to discover that will delight and bemuse us all in equal measure. But then again it might all be condemned to be lost in history. If so, thank goodness we have Schönherr’s book in English to educate us on what there is available to know.

You can purchase the book from Amazon here. I don’t get any money from sales but I was sent a review copy free of charge. 

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One thought on “Book Review: North Korean Cinema: A History

  1. Pingback: Capitalist Dreams in the Communist Utopia: North Korea’s The Schoolgirl’s Diary | Sino-NK

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