Favorite Movies

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

“I love foreign movies! They are free of ideology!” I’ve heard this comment more than once from North Koreans. What they mean is not that foreign movies do not have any ideological messages (something quite impossible, every movie has some message, even if the more subtle are usually not noticed by the audience). They mean that foreign movies are free from the overt boring propaganda statements which play such a prominent role in North Korean cinema production.

Revolutionary enthusiasm and the unremitting cruelty of the enemy _ the U.S. imperialists and their South Korean puppets _ have been the major topic of North Korean cinema for many decades. Of course, movie-goers are used to these ideological messages and somehow manage to filter them out, concentrating their attention on the depiction of ‘real life’ with its problems of relationships and families. Nonetheless, foreign movies are especially welcomed by the public, since their ideological content is less pronounced.

Once upon a time, in the 1940s and 1950s, foreign movies constituted the bulk of films screened in North Korean theaters. Most of those movies came from the Soviet Union, with an occasional film from another “fraternal country”. However, in the early 1960s, the split between Moscow and Pyongyang led to a nearly complete halt of those exchanges. The East European Communist regimes began to liberalize themselves, while an unabashed Stalinist nationalism (a.k.a juche) reigned supreme in the North, making its leaders suspicious of all exchanges with external regimes, including the communist states. The cultural exports of the increasingly liberal Soviet Union came to be perceived as a source of dangerous revisionism

Only in the 1980s were foreign movies re-introduced to the North, accompanied by films from India, China, and other “non-imperialist” countries. Soon it became clear that as far as box-office success is concerned, those films fared much better than the local productions.

No North Korean statistics have been released so far, but it seems that one of the greatest box-office successes in North Korean history was the ‘Pirates of the Twentieth Century’, a remarkably silly 1979 Soviet action movie about brave Russian sailors who use their martial arts skills to teach a lesson or two to those naughty pirates somewhere in the Pacific. The story line is utterly implausible, the acting ludicrous, but the martial arts and special effects are never far from the screen, and even semi-nudity is present (well, I am not sure if that episode survived the scissors of the North Korean censors).

The movie was a tremendous hit in the USSR where, in the early 1980s, to the great dismay of the high-brow audience, it was seen by one third of all Soviet movie-goers. Judging by available reports, the ‘Pirates of the Twentieth Century’ was even more successful in the North where it, in fact, became the first widely seen martial arts movie.

In an improbable twist, this genre, usually seen as quintessentially Chinese, was introduced to the North via Russia. Soon there were some North Korean copies around, where the goodies were smashing either the US Imperialists (‘Order No. 027,’ a story about North Korean commandos during the Korean War) or evil feudal landlords (‘Hong Kil-dong,’ a Korean version of the Robin Hood tale).

On more sophisticated note, Pyongyang movie buffs enjoy the romantic comedies by Russian director Riazanov, also a major hit with the Russian middle-brow audience (to which the present author proudly belongs himself!). The love stories, with a light touch of social satire, portray the middle classes of the late Soviet era.

Other Soviet hits were the intellectual spy thrillers based on novels by the prolific Yulian Semenov. The authorities love those films since they have a “correct” ideological message (the brave KGB agents dwarf the intrigues of the CIA or Gestapo). The common people like the same movies because they exhibit a level of sophistication impermissible in North Korean cinema. Semenov’s CIA agents, and even the Gestapo thugs, are by no means the one-dimensional “wolf-like Yankees” of the North Korean films.

Indian movies are popular as well. While nearly unknown in the West, the numerous studios of Bombay/Mumbai (“Bollywood”) churn out an astonishing amount of musicals and melodramas, to be enjoyed across South Asia and in some parts of the former Communist bloc. These movies are sugary, hyper-sentimental, with one-dimensional characters, predictable storylines, primitive dialogue, and no acting worthy of the name.

But they also have a lot of singing and dancing numbers, as well as stunningly beautiful sets and scenery. It’s escapism in its purest form, and this is probably what people north of the 38th really want. Perhaps, even the heavy doses of syrup in the storyline appeal to the North Korean public who, for decades, have subsisted on a diet of ideologically wholesome movies where the major emotion was love for the Leader (and, perhaps, hatred towards one’s enemies).

People are tired of the ideological messages _ especially if those messages are presented in a crude way. It seems that not only movie producers, hardly happy about ideology themselves, but even their supervisors are beginning to realize this in the most recent decade. The system is getting more and shallow, based on assumptions few people actually believe. But that is another story…


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