Disney characters on North Korean TV

This above image and clip is from North Korean TV where some conspicuous Disney characters made an appearance. Here’s the story from AP:

Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh took the stage in North Korea during a concert for new leader Kim Jong Un in an unusual performance featuring Disney characters.

Performers dressed as some of America’s most memorable cartoon characters danced and pranced as footage from “Snow White,” “Dumbo,” “Beauty and the Beast” and other popular Disney movies played on a massive backdrop, according to still photos shown on state TV on Saturday.

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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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Promise in Pyongyang: North Korea-China co-production

Just seen news that China’s vast appetite for co-productions with other nations seems to have crept across the boarder into the DPRK. “Promise in Pyongyang” received its first screening on June 27, 2012 and by the looks of the preview video on youtube (which I can’t say for certain is genuine) it looks like a beautifully-shot tale revolving around the Mass Games.

My first thoughts on seeing the preview are how good Pyongyang looks in these scenes. The DPRK film industry has been surviving on archaic technology which means even contemporary films look like they were made 20 years ago. Obviously the Chinese cash and equipment have been put to good use.

The language appears to be in Korean and Chinese, but what is most curious is that the subtitling is in Chinese and English. Perhaps they are looking to crack the international market? Or maybe they are just adhering to the convention of all films being released domestically in China have both subtitles.

Below is the release information Rodong Sinmun about the film’s preview in Pyongyang.

A preview of the DPRK-China co-produced film “Promise in Pyongyang” took place at Taedongmun Cinema on June 27.

Present there were Pak Chun Nam, vice-minister of Culture who is director of the General Bureau of Film, officials of ministries, and movie creators and artistes, media reporters and editors.

Attending it were members of the Chinese film delegation headed by Tong Gang, director of the film management bureau of the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, Ambassador Liu Hongcai and staff members of the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang, Chinese people staying and Chinese students studying in the DPRK.

Source: Rodong Sinmun

Two New DPRK Features

The Rodong Sinmun’s English website has given a brief glimpse of two new features that have been produced (presumably, but who knows) this year in North Korea.

The first is “Wishes”

The Korean Film Studio recently produced feature film “Wishes”.

The film is based on the solo play “Wishes” which was highly appreciated at the second-term fourth contest of art squads of servicepersons’ families of the Korean People’s Army. It has a great significance in cognitive education.

A preview of the film took place at the People’s Palace of Culture on December 15.

It was enjoyed by Kim Yong Nam, Choe Yong Rim and other senior party and state officials, officials of the armed forces bodies, ministries and national institutions, and creators, artistes, journalists and editors in the fields of culture and art and mass media and officials in Pyongyang.

It is based on a true life story of servicepersons who took part in the construction of the Huichon Power Station and their families. It gives ideological and artistic portrayal of the greatest wishes of the Korean people who uphold leader Kim Jong Il as the father of a big family. It also tells how to live and work to have those wishes come true.

It impressively shows the unanimous desire of all the people of the country to have pictures taken with Kim Jong Il to keep them as their eternal family photographs.

Source: Rodong Sinmun

The second is “Little Girl Presenting Wild Flowers”:

 Korean feature film “Little Girl Presenting Wild Flowers” was produced.

The film is based on the true story about a little girl who deeply impressed leader Kim Jong Il as she placed a bunch of wild flowers with best wishes before the monument to on-the-spot guidance in June 1996, missing President Kim Il Sung very much.

Heroine Jong Hui devoted herself to training from the very day she joined the Korean People’s Army, bearing deep in mind the great loving care Kim Jong Il showed for her by praising her deed in her childhood and made her known to the whole country as “a little girl presenting wild flowers.”

Through the portrayal of the genuine and simple soldier standing firm guard over her post, always bearing deep in mind the honor of pleasing Kim Jong Il, the film impressively tells where the worth of living of the soldiers in the Songun era is.

Source: Rodong Sinmun

SEKs and The Lion King Mystery

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.

Screenwriter: Ui Ung Yong

A Korean feature film “Two Families in Haeun-dong” produced in 1996 and the other “Myself in the Distant Future” in 1997 gave deep emotions to the Korean people.

The former shows that one can only enjoy happiness in family when he devotes everything for the country and people, not for only his family. And the latter deals with the issue what valuable wealth younger generation should create for the country.

It gained a gold torch light prize at the 6th Pyongyang International Film Festival for its high ideological and artistic value.

The two scenarios were created by Ui Ung Yong in his early 30s.

He, who was specially interested in literature in his childhood, wrote his first scenario “Days at University” when he worked at an institute in local area as an assistant.

His first work won the prize at a contest for its good theme and value in education. This led him to a professional scenario writer.

He has persistently strived to work out scenarios dealing with issues urgently requested in public, to give answers with plain but meaningful stories.

He has become a Kim Il Sung Prize winner at 33 for creating excellent works reflecting the requirement of the era and the revolution. He has made persistent efforts to create many good works such as “People in Jagang Province” (Part 1 and 2), “Firelight”, “Fraternal Feeling”, “Wave of Songgang” (Part 1 and 2) and “Let People Appreciate You” in a bid to repay for the trust and hope of the Party.

Another feature film written by him will soon be on screen to make a hit.

Source: http://www.rodong.rep.kp/InterEn/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2011-12-07-0047&chAction=S

As the Rodong Sinum continues to put up articles of a film-related nature, I will try and dig them up and post them here. I’ve not come across any of this guy’s films, but it’s possible that their English translation of the titles is different to what I have.

*Note: Gag Halfrunt pointed out, quite rightly, that one of the films referenced is Myself in the Distant Future”. Good work!