In previous posts I’ve touched on North Korea’s animation industry, which, through a combination of cheap labour costs and skilled animators, has attracted a number of well known companies to outsource their movies (with or without their knowledge) to North Korea.
One of the main people behind this is animation legend called Nelson Shin. Shin, a South Korean, and his production company in Seoul has contributed the majority of the animation from such American classics as “The Simpsons” and the original “Transformers” cartoon.
Recognising the potential to build bridges between the North and South, it’s been suggested that Shin has outsourced a lot of work for major projects to North Korea. Controversial as it may seem, Disney’s “The Lion King” is rumoured to have been partly drawn in the DPRK.
One such clue to this fact comes in one of the film’s more controversial scenes when a cloud of dust kicks up from under Simba’s body seemingly spelling out the word “SEX”. A cheeky move from infantile animators… or perhaps it was actually our North Korean animators working for the company SEK sneaking in their companies name into the movie?
It’s often been denied by Disney (who would have had no part in a third party outsourcing move that would have been illegal under US law) that any of the movie was made there, but it is interesting to note.
A really important (purposeful) collaboration did take place, however, in 2005 when Nelson Shin produced the first ever animated film made and distributed in North and South Korea at the same time. “Empress Chung” agonisingly has never been released on DVD, but I would give my right arm to be able to see this film sometime soon… that or to find out if I can see SEX or SEK in the dust from under that lion.
It’s been an incredibly busy year for North Korea politically. And as December saw the death of leader Kim Jong Il, few (and by few, I really mean me) were recalling that this time last year saw the first screening on North Korean television of a Western movie. Of course, Russian, Chinese and other friendly communist countries have had films broadcast on sate TV before, but the appearance of Bend It Like Beckham (2002) on December 26, 2010 was an absolute first.
Earlier in 2011 I managed to get into contact with Peter Hughes (UK Ambassador to the DPRK from 2008-2011) and asked him how this event managed to be organised. After some delay – apparently there are things even more important than this website going on over there – he responding with the following article. You will also note the good people at Koryo Tours had a hand in getting it on TV and – despite what the media reported – not as much of the movie was edited out as was first claimed. Anyway, not strictly about North Korean films but you may find it interesting:
It’s difficult to over emphasize the importance of The Flower Girl (1972) in the history of North Korean cinema… and possibly even harder to find an analogous example in another country’s movie cannon. The US may have iconoclastic Citizen Kane (1941) and China the psycho-sexual drama Spring in a Small Town (1948) but there is a reverence paid to The Flower Girl that makes it far more than just the “greatest” film ever produced in the country.
Filmmakers Lynn Lee and James Leong of Lianain Films gained unprecedented access to the Pyongyang’s main film academy for an exceptionally well observed documentary piece.
It’s fascinating to see filmmakers battling with constant power cuts and also a group of obviously privileged students living in comfort in Pyongyang addicted to their mobile phones.
The 30-minute short appeared on Al Jazeera English in February but a feature-length project The Great North Korean Picture Show is scheduled to be released in the near future.
I finally managed to track down an English-subtitled version of The Flower Girl (1972) the other day.
I imagine it will be a while before I manage to get around to watching it, but the iconic opening scene did remind me that the film was so popular in North Korea that its star graced a DPRK banknote (that’s actress Hong Yong-hui in the bottom picture, centre).
Stay tuned for more updates as I recently got my hands on a few more North Korean films and will let you know about them as soon as I have time.
I’ve already posted about James Joseph Dresnok (he made a cameo in from 5pm to 5am), one of the most notorious members of the US army to walk across the DMZ and essentially defect to North Korea. Another key player in the story of his life, although featured less in the documentary Crossing the Line (2006), is Charles Robert Jenkins.
Unlike Dresnok, Jenkins was not in serious trouble with the army when he decided to desert in the 1960s he was worried about being sent to fight in the Vietnam war. His arrival in the DPRK would be the start of 40 years in the DPRK which he wrote about in his book The Recluctant Communist.
Like Dresnok – and practically every other foreigner in the DPRK at the time he was required to act in movies. Here’s an extract from the book about his experiences working on Nameless Heroes, one of the longest running sagas in North Korean film history.
“I was being ordered to act in a movie. I remember one time I was watching TV in 1978. All TV in North Korea is propaganda… but still, it is there so you watch it. It was a movie about the Korea war… and who was it who popped up on screen? [fellow US defector] Parish, playing the part of a British army officer! I couldn’t believe it. It was an early installment of a multipart movie called Nameless Heroes [the book Korean Film Art gives it the English title Unknown Heroes] that eventually stretched to 20 installments. Well 1980 had rolled around and the Organization intended me to play a new part in Nameless Heroes: the evil Dr. Kelton, a US warmonger and capitalist based in South Korea whose goal in life was to keep the war going and benefit American arms manufacturers. They shaved my head on top since my character was supposed to be balding, and I wore heavily caked makeup. I can still remember my first line. I was talking to Claus, the Seoul CIA station chief (played by the Italian vice dean of the music college in Pyongyang), and I yelled: “You coward! You didn’t keep the secrets! I will personally telephone the representative of the Federal States, Carl Vinson.”
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 email@example.com and then can hook you up.