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:
I’ve already posted about James Joseph Dresnok (he made a cameo in from 5pm to 5am), one of the most notorious members of the US army to walk across the DMZ and essentially defect to North Korea. Another key player in the story of his life, although featured less in the documentary Crossing the Line (2006), is Charles Robert Jenkins.
Unlike Dresnok, Jenkins was not in serious trouble with the army when he decided to desert in the 1960s he was worried about being sent to fight in the Vietnam war. His arrival in the DPRK would be the start of 40 years in the DPRK which he wrote about in his book The Recluctant Communist.
Like Dresnok – and practically every other foreigner in the DPRK at the time he was required to act in movies. Here’s an extract from the book about his experiences working on Nameless Heroes, one of the longest running sagas in North Korean film history.
“I was being ordered to act in a movie. I remember one time I was watching TV in 1978. All TV in North Korea is propaganda… but still, it is there so you watch it. It was a movie about the Korea war… and who was it who popped up on screen? [fellow US defector] Parish, playing the part of a British army officer! I couldn’t believe it. It was an early installment of a multipart movie called Nameless Heroes [the book Korean Film Art gives it the English title Unknown Heroes] that eventually stretched to 20 installments. Well 1980 had rolled around and the Organization intended me to play a new part in Nameless Heroes: the evil Dr. Kelton, a US warmonger and capitalist based in South Korea whose goal in life was to keep the war going and benefit American arms manufacturers. They shaved my head on top since my character was supposed to be balding, and I wore heavily caked makeup. I can still remember my first line. I was talking to Claus, the Seoul CIA station chief (played by the Italian vice dean of the music college in Pyongyang), and I yelled: “You coward! You didn’t keep the secrets! I will personally telephone the representative of the Federal States, Carl Vinson.”
Once again, I am pleasantly surprised by this offering from North Korea. Obviously, you have to judge this film – which I imagine most would find hard to sit though, even at 78 minutes in length – with a different criteria than you would a film from a more developed country.
The key to the enjoyment I got out of the film was its pure simplicity: a squadron of North Korean soldiers during the Korean war must scramble across dangerous terrain to cut off an American attack (with only the eponymous 12 hours in which to do it). With a commander whose health is failing him, a group of young but fiercely patriotic soldiers and a character who is perhaps the closest to comic relief I have seen in a North Korean film to date, the DPRK army manage to hold off the Yanks (who foolishly informed the press of their planned attack before going through with it).
You actually have a pretty dramatic and action-filled movie on your hands, but what the film is most notable for is the first appearance I have come across of James Joseph Dresnok.