Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

There are so many facets of North Korean animation worth exploring (I touched on it a little bit in my last post).

By far the most fascinating account of how the animation industry works in North Korea can be found in the graphic novel Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea.  Guy Delisle – a French-speaking Canadian – was sent to North Korea by the French animation studio he was working for. Pyongyang finds itself the unlikely Asian hub for animation outsourcing, and a few titles you might not expect have been animated there (Disney’s The Lion King for one).

The graphic novel manages to capture the mundaneness and blandless of Pyongyang whilst maintaining the readers interest. If you’re interested in North Korea, it’s definitely one of the lighter reads available on the market.

North Korea Animation

My word. I have been slack.

A stack of new North Korean DVDs arrived, I got in contact with possibly the biggest authority (in the west) on North Korean film (Mr Johannes Schönherr) and people left right and centre have been pointing me in the direction of more online resources for North Korean film.

And yet the site isn’t getting updated as often as it should. Let’s blame it on the day job. And keep your eyes peeled for more updates in the future.

For now, to tide you over, here’s a link to a video on YouTube of a nameless North Korean anti-American animation. There’s so much to be said about the DPRK animation industry: how it often has work from the west farmed out to it, how Nelson Shin produced a joint North-South Korean animated film called Empress Chung and, most interestingly, part of Disney’s The Lion King were animated there.

But for now, let’s just enjoy this little short. And come back soon, for more updates are surely on the way.

WCW Wrestling in North Korea

Not essentially a DPRK film related story, but the sheer bizarre nature of how WCW wrestling ended up performing a show in North Korea shortly after the death of Kim Il-Sung is definitely worth a post.

The above video shows a virtually silent crowd of 320,000 North Koreans packed into the Pyongyang’s May Day stadium to see the spandex clad wrestlers go at it. I wonder what the North Korean’s perception of whether the action is “fake” or not was.

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Kim Jong Il and the Development of Cinema Art

 As reported on the North Korea Tech blog, Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the Workers’ Party of Korea and North Korea’s main national daily, launched an English-language website over the last couple of days with quite a large amount of content.

It’s not been up and running for long but I decided to take glance to see if there were any articles on the subject of cinema that had made their way online and low and hehold, a journalist by the name of Han Chung Hyok had produced a little elegy about the Kim Jong Il’s influence on North Korea’s cinema.  The full article is reproduced below, but it’s interesting to note that in 2011 he provided “on the spot guidance” for a film called Wishes that premiered in Pyongyang in December. The site also has an article on that film, here.

Kim Jong Il and the Development of Cinema Art

Cinema artists of the Korean Film Studio miss leader Kim Jong Il ever so much. All the more so now that he passed away.

Their unforgettable memories date back to 1965 when the feature film “The Path to Awakening” was in the making under his guidance. Those were the days when Korean cinema artists were trained to remain always true to the Workers’ Party and to the idea of Juche.

For nearly half a century since then, busy as he was with the Party and state affairs, he gave energetic guidance to the development of Korean cinema art.

Under his loving care many famous cinema artists including movie stars were produced.

Among them are Choe Chang Su, labor hero and People’s Actor, Kim Ryong Rin, winner of Kim Il Sung Prize and People’s Actor, and Hong Yong Hui[star of The Flower Girl], People’s Actress.

They all recalled in deep emotion that leader Kim Jong Il would come to the film studio in the morning or in the evening and sometimes deep at night and at the small hours of the morning, discussing on the scenario and guiding actors and actresses how to do their part perfectly.

They also remembered the days when under his energetic guidance they produced the multi-part serial “Star of Korea” in the 1970s and 1980s, and the multi-part serial “The Nation and Destiny” and such masterpieces as “A Schoolgirl’s Diary” and “Pyongyang Nalpharam” in the 1990s and 2000s.

In 2011, he guided production of the feature film “Wish.” He gave the core for the scenario, personally picked up leading actors and actresses, thus bringing this film to perfection. It was the last feature film put out under his personal guidance.

The studio has produced more than 900 movies from 1965 to 2011. But the studio has not yet produced any piece portraying leader Kim Jong Il. They all feel sorry and guilty. Now they are all out to produce new masterpieces.

Han Chung Hyok


Bend it Like Beckham on North Korean TV

It’s been an incredibly busy year for North Korea politically. And as December saw the death of leader Kim Jong Il, few (and by few, I really mean me) were recalling that this time last year saw the first screening on North Korean television of a Western movie. Of course, Russian, Chinese and other friendly communist countries have had films broadcast on sate TV before, but the appearance of Bend It Like Beckham (2002) on December 26, 2010 was an absolute first.

Earlier in 2011 I managed to get into contact with Peter Hughes (UK Ambassador to the DPRK from 2008-2011) and asked him how this event managed to be organised. After some delay – apparently there are things even more important than this website going on over there – he responding with the following article. You will also note the good people at Koryo Tours had a hand in getting it on TV and – despite what the media reported – not as much of the movie was edited out as was first claimed. Anyway, not strictly about North Korean films but you may find it interesting:

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Review: Pyongyang Nalpharam

Museum curator: “Our traditional martial art was established as Thaekkyon in Ri Dynasty through Koryo’s. Regionally its practitioners were nicknamed differently. Eg, Chaebi and Jebi…”

Mr Ko: “… and those around Mount Taesong were called Pyongyang Nalpharam… “
I loved the feel of Pyongyang Nalpharam (2006), a film that was on my top 3 “must see” titles from North Korea. The opening scene, set in an impressive looking library, had all the elements that I love from this kind of kung fu movie: ancient texts, hidden forms of kung fu and details of long forgotten battles.

Kim Jong Il: Director

On the spot guidance

Kim Jong-Il (1941-2011) probably did more than anyone to advance the North Korean film industry. Take from that what you will.

Another interesting tidbit emerged in the torrent of news surrounding the death of Kim Jong-Il: Dr. Francois-Xavier Roux, French neurosurgeon who treated Kim Jong Il in 2008 after his stroke, reported having very routine discussions with Kim in an interview with the AP.

I think he was profoundly Francophile. Maybe it’s no accident that they chose a French medical team. Obviously he wanted to establish political ties with France. He was not hiding it. He also knew French cinema very well. I was pretty surprised. He knew French wines pretty well. We were talking about the differences between Bourgogne and Bordeaux, etc. So yes, we had normal discussions.

A quick note about the above photo, a description of which I found on a news agencies website:

In this March 1979 photo from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, distributed by Korea News Service, leader Kim Jong Il gives advice at the shooting of “An Jung-gun Shoots Ito Hirobumi,” a narrative film.

North Korean DVDs

The eternal problem for any North Korean movie enthusiast (although sometimes I feel like I’m the only one out there!) is how to track the films down.

From sites like Wikipedia and IMDb (and dare I say it, this humble site here) it’s possible to find out information about a huge number of North Korean titles. But with mistranslations, inaccuracies about dates it’s not always possible to get an definitive idea about what’s out there.

Far and away the most asked question when people write into the site is how can I get my hands on North Korean movies. Well, if you don’t live in Pyongyang, work at an academic institution that has the movies or live near the Korean Film Archive the best option is to visit the website North Korea Books.

Run by one Mr Nicholas Mercury, the site has possibly the largest selection of North Korean DVDs anywhere on the web. As the website’s name suggests, you’ll also be able to find an extensive array of books – including Kim Jong-il’s On The Art of the Cinema and Korean Film Art, the definitive book on North Korean movies (well, until I get around to publishing one, that is!).

It’s a labour of love for Nicholas who spends considerable time and effort tracking down new and exciting titles. Here’s what he said about his last expedition in China to track down all 20 parts of Nameless Heroes:

NAMELESS HEROES Parts 1 to 18 (I already had Parts 19 and 20): The person I hire in Beijing to do film related research and Korean to English translations found someone in Wuhan who had these available for sale (I had been searching for years…).  The problem was that this seller REFUSED to sell to anyone Chinese and would only sell to me if I went there and purchased from him in person.  So I had to take the train there, then pay for a guide in Wuhan since I cannot speak any Mandarin, then meet the seller and pay his not inexpensive price for each of the 18 parts (sold separately of course).  Due to it being some holiday I then discovered that no trains were available to return to Beijing so ended up stranded there until forced to buy a plane ticket a few days later.  Then upon returning to Canada, WEEKS of work to correct and improve the quality of the original material (some parts were too dark, others had audio/video synchronization problems etc…the usual DPRK quality problems).”

Although the titles are not cheap, when you consider that the only other options are going without these movies altogether you can understand why I found it entirely necessary to purchase as many as I can.

Hopefully 2012 will be an important year for this site, and with the help of Nicholas and the countless DVDs I will be purchasing in the near future, you can expect some interesting insights into the world of North Korean cinema and some blog posts on films rarely seen outside the DPRK.

Review: The Flower Girl

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.

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