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.”

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. 

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.