It’s been such a long time coming.
I finally tracked down – and finally sat down and watched – the first North Korean film ever produced: My Home Village (1949), directed by Kang Hong-sik.
I knew what to expect from the film (a lack of English subtitles meant I only had a crude English synopsis to guide me) but having watched my fair share of Chinese films made after the Communists took power in 1949 I recognized many of the staples in this DPRK effort.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 IMDb.com
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.
Just a great image from the film Centre Forward (1978). The banner at the top of the site is also from this film.
The movie also has a special place in my heart as they used a quote from my review in Time Out Beijing on the cover of the DVD. Here’s what I had to say about the film: