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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 love of the beautiful game has certainly penetrated into the Hermit Kingdom. I’ve posted before about Centre Forward (1978), but here we have a documentary made in the DPRK about the national women’s football team. As you can tell by the footage they’re are a formidable, well-drilled team.
Part two of the doc is after the break.
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.