RIP Choi Eun-hee

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Woke up today to media reports that South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee had died.

More “notorious” for her time as a detainee at the pleasure of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il than her acting career, there are still a great number films in her cannon worth discovering.

“My Mother and Her Guest” (1961) is a beautiful and touching melodrama which is a perfect place to start for those looking to know more about Choi and director Shin Sang-ok.

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“This American Life” Does North Korean Cinema

A Kim Jong-il Production This American Life, a podcast I suggest you all listen to, featured a fantastic retelling of the Shin Sang-ok & Choi Eun-hee saga this past week. The story of the kidnapping South Korean director and star at the hands of movie fanatic Kim Jong-il is beautifully told by Paul Fischer (who has authored a book on the subject) is especially worth a listen as it contains extracts from the secret recordings Shin and Choi made of Kim Jong-il while held captive. Listen to the podcast (which includes two other stories) below.

If you’ve read around the subject extensively, there won’t be much shocking to discover here (“what?! there’s a North Korean Godzilla movie?”) but for the generalist, this is a great introduction.

For me it’s always with mixed feelings that I read stories about Shin Sang-ok’s time in North Korea… I spent months researching the story myself but never got around to writing it. How do you say “carpe diem” in Korean?

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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Review: Hong Kil Dong

Although not directed by him, or made while he was still resident in the country, Hong Kil Dong (1986) bears all the hallmarks of a Shin Sang-ok production. By that I mean this film, unlike practically every North Korea film production I have seen before Shin became active in the DPRK, does not place the emphasis on propaganda first and entertainment second. Watch the opening sequence of Hong Kil Dong below (you can actually watch the whole film on youtube) and you’ll see that it’s a film which is much more concerned (at least initially) with stylistic kung fu action than it is preaching a message.

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Pulgasari: North Korea’s Godzilla

Undoubtedly the most widely distributed North Korean film outside of its own country, Pulgasari is a rare attempt in North Korean cinema to use themes from the “mainstream”.

Utilizing the talents of Shin Sang-ok, Pulgasari was used talent from China and Japan to recreate the old Korean myth of a village who construct a monster to defend them from attacking hoards. Kind of like Seven Samurai but with a giant metal-eating monster made out of rice instead of… seven samurai.

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