Country of Orchards (1972) – Stockholm Screening

Simon Fowler - North Korean Film Screening

The author wearing a newly purchased piece of Scandinavian knitwear.

What a huge honour it was to introduce the North Korean documentary “Country of Orchards” (1972) at the Swedish Film Institute.

A huge thank you to those who came out and watched the pristine 35mm print from the Swedish archives. I like to imagine what Swedish films were sent the other way and found their way into Kim Jong-Il’s personal collection…

I also found out the incredible story of the 1,000 Swedish Volvos that were sent to North Korea in the ’70s and were never paid for.

I guess they must have thought that a 35mm print of a documentary about agriculture was more than enough.

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Kim Jong-Il’s Cinema Experience

As time passes I get more and more emails into my inbox asking about North Korean cinema. Usually it’s from a journalist who needs a quick quote to pad out an article, but sometimes something really special can make its way there.

Kim Jong-Il’s Cinematic Experience is an interactive website that lets you explore North Korean cinema through videos and (best of all) gives you the chance to make your own DPRK film trailer (you can see my attempt here).

Choose the music you desire, a revolutionary cause and a Facebook friend who you want to star in the picture and the site will generate a snazzy little trailer that you can share. Definitely worth checking out.

Kim Jong-Il: On the Art of Cinema

Kim Jong Il Art of Cinema

A little light reading for a Monday…

Here are a few of my favourite quotes as I (not for the first time) flick through Kim Jong-Il’s seminal tome on how to make a film (in North Korea).

“A film without music is incomplete.”

“In a wide-screen film, it is better to shoot long scenes which match the flow of life and to prolong the effective emotional content by means of efficient editing based on the unrestricted movement of the camera.”

“Make-up in a noble art.”

“Success in acting must be assured by persistent effort.”

Documentary: Kim Jong-Il and Stars (Part 1)

I know I promised the mother-lode  but I’m afraid it’s just going to have to be another taste. Here’s the first part (there are three in total) of a DPRK documentary about Kim Jong-Il’s efforts as a producer in North Korea.

Fascinating because: you see interviews with actors, some great pictures I’d not seen before and, best of all, it’s in English.

Happy Friday everyone.

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. 

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.

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