Pyongyang International Film Festival 2012

The fine folks at Koryo Tours have given us a bit of advanced notice about the Pyongyang International Film Festival 2012. Held every other year this is an event I’ve been dying to get to for a few years now and I think I’m definitely going to have to make it next year.

It’ll be a great chance to not only see some of the best North Korean films of recent years but also a chance for North Koreans to experience some Western releases.

If you’re interested in attending yourself, follow the information below and keep checking Koryo’s website for further information as it arrives.

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Review: Order No. 027

“Immoral is the life dedicated to the Great Leader and the Party”

I have an overwhelming need for genre categorisation when watching films, and “Order No. 027” (1986) certainly left me scratching my head. Yes, it’s a war film set during the Korean conflict, but there’s also a strong kung fu element. It could be called a “men on a mission” as the plot mainly deal with a group of elite soldiers sent across the border into South Korea to destroy a military base, but strangely I felt that I was constantly reminded of a slap-stick comedy.

Not that there is much humour to go by in “Order No. 27” – intentional or otherwise –  but sped up action sequences, fight scenes that were more Charlie Chaplin than Jackie Chan and general clunky camera work took me to a place that I doubt I was supposed to go.

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Review: The Schoolgirl’s Diary

Sacrifice is something that is particularly hard to comprehend during adolescence. In Jang In-hak’s modern melodrama, we see the 16-year-old Su-ryeon (Pak Mi-hyang) struggle to come to terms with the fact that her absentee father works tirelessly in the city on a scientific breakthrough (“for the good of the Nation”) while she, her mother, her sister and her grandmother must live in the countryside without him. Her self-absorbed notions bring her into conflict with her family and friends, but after a period of struggle she realizes that sacrifice by everyone is essential for everyone in the modern age.

This low-key melodramatic tale of the problems facing the current middle classes appeared at the Cannes Film Festival where it attracted attention from French distributor Pretty Pictures. The release of the film in Europe meant that it was one of the first North Korean films to receive healthy distribution outside of the DPRK.

So what was it that made “The Schoolgirl’s Diary” more appealing than the kung fu hit “Hong Kil Dong” or the action adventure of “Order No. 27”? Gentle and comedic in tone, “The Schoolgirl’s Diary” touches on themes of patriotism but never rams them down your through. Also, Pak Mi-hyang in the lead creates a believable portrayal of a mildly angsty teen who wishes to see more of her father and move to a big apartment in the big city.

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The North Korean “Titanic”

I seem to spend my days recently, trawling the internet, search after search, trying to find North Korean films to buy on DVD. Quite often the sources are limited and the opportunity of English subtitles non-existent. But the search will continue until I get my hands on the mother-lode.

One film that keeps cropping up is Souls Protest (2000), which is often described as the North Korean Titanic. Such simple and lazy comparisons are often very satisfying, and it’s easy to see how the barn-storming 1997 film made quite an impression in the DPRK as pirate DVDs just started to arrive in the country at that time.

The film even gained a release in South Korea (after a few edits at the hands of the censors) making this dramatisation of the Ukishima Maru incident one of the few films to make it “south of the border”.

I’ve added the trailer above which certainly makes me desperate to track it down, but for now we’ll just have to deal with what wikipedia and a few glimpses of what the film might be like.


Director: Shin Sang-ok

Shin Sang-ok had many lives.

He began his cinematic career working on Choi In-gyu’s Viva Freedom!, the first film made in Korea after attaining independence from Japan. From there Shin went on to have a sparkling career in the “Golden Age” of Korean movies. His 1961 effort, Mother and a Guest, is a beautiful literary adaptation which is both lyrical and (mildly) daring in its use of sexual themes.

Told from the impossibly cute perspective of Ok-hui (Jeon Young-seon), the young daughter of the widowed mother (played by Shin Sang-ok’s then wife Choi Eun-hee), the film demonstrates why Shin was known as the Orson Welles of Korean cinema.

Alas, there was far more to happed in Shin’s long and distinguished career that would give him more notoriety that his great films of the 1960s. After falling out with the Korean government, he was forced to head to Hong Kong to make films for the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest studios.

In 1978 Shin joined his then ex-wife in North Korea where he directed 7 films over the coming years, perhaps the most prolific and artistically important period for North Korean films.

The pair then went to the US and the final stage of Shin’s remarkable career began when he produced a series of films that many of us will remember from our childhood: 3 Ninjas.

As the title of Shin’s autobiography suggests (I, Was a Film) Shin had one of the most remarkable lives you could ever imagine, and in the coming weeks I’ll look at some of the amazing films he produced. But for now, I suggest tracking down Mother and A Guest. You won’t regret it.

Review: From 5pm to 5am

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.

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Review: Our Lifeline (2002)

What struck me most about Our Lifeline, an actually pretty good espionage thriller with a couple of cute twists in its tale, was how old the film looked. I sat through Part 1, which clocked in at around 1 hour 20 minutes and wondered when this film was made. Obviously judging by the aesthetics it had to be around the 80s, but when I couldn’t be certain.

Jo Yun Chol looking thoughtful

After searching and wikipedia to no avail, I googled it and was genuinely shocked to find it was made in 2002. Of course, it was set in 1950 but the framing sequences at the beginning and end took place in “modern times” and it still looked like a film from times past.

Centre Forward

The excellent folk at Beijing-based Koryo Tours (the best people to deal with if you want to travel to the DPRK) licensed this little “gem” of a film directly from North Korea around the time of the last world cup.

It’s a chipper production that surprisingly mirrors many of the problems in modern football: too much player power, interfering owners and supporters who just love to complain.

The actual scenes of football, however, are not that great. They make Sly Stallone’s efforts in Escape to Victory look like these fellas in yellow. It also makes another addition into the sporting genre of North Korean films that I’ve been watching recently. Watch out of more updates on those in the next couple of days.

Still definitely worth a gander, especially as this is a particularly rare film to make it out of the DPRK with great English subtitling. To purchase a copy, email the guys at and then can hook you up.