Cinema Offers Look Inside North Korea’s Evolution

NPR, All Things Considered (Hat Tip LDP)

One of the first indications of North Korea’s interest in opening up to the West came not at a diplomatic summit, but at an international film festival. For the first time in its history, North Korea had a film screened at the Cannes film festival, held earlier this year.

Korean film scholar Souk Yong Kim says movies can open a unique window into life in the mysterious country.

What most outsiders know about North Korea is its history of human rights abuses and nuclear proliferation.

In the United States, that has made North Korea a target for satire, in movies such as Team America: World Police by the creators of Comedy Central’s South Park series.

Kim teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and studies North Korean popular culture. She says the country hasn’t been better at portraying us. Especially during the height of the Cold War, propaganda films featured brutal Americans.

One melodrama from 1966 shows a U.S. soldier coming onto a beautiful North Korean woman. When she resists his advances, he shoots her.

“It’s quite in-your-face, blunt propaganda to incite hatred of Americans,” Kim says.

The film scholar says that everything in North Korea’s state-run entertainment industry serves as propaganda.

In North Korea, film has traditionally been a cheap and easy way to spread the revolutionary message to rural peasants, and the medium is beloved by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

“He is known to be an extremely artistic person by all accounts, and he tapped into that artistic talent to really prove his filial piety for his father, Kim Il Sung,” says Souk Yong Kim.

Kim Il Sung founded the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. When he died, his son’s documentary about his funeral helped cement Kim Jong Il’s path to power. The aspiring young director showed masses of wailing citizens. Grief even overcomes the narrator.

“This is the moment when the first hereditary socialist nation is born,” Kim, the academic, says. “Now, Kim Jong Il is in charge, and he is showing this to the entire country and the world.”

But by the late 1970s, traditional propaganda films bored the man known as the “Dear Leader,” and he needed something new.

“This crazy man obsessed with film, probably a megalomaniac, went so far as to kidnap a South Korean film couple to make good communist film for him,” Kim says.

A popular South Korean actress and a leading director disappeared over the border in 1978. According to their account, they were abducted by North Korean agents and imprisoned for years in re-education camps. Then Kim Jong Il forced them to make movies. That transformed North Korean cinema.

Director Shin Sang Ok and his wife made seven movies before their dramatic escape in 1986. He made musicals that tackled new themes to North Korean films, like romantic love. He made a Godzilla-like movie that has achieved some cult status. And he supervised others that borrowed from Hong Kong action films, such as one about a North Korean Robin Hood who steals from the rich and gives to the people.

North Korean movies have continued to evolve — albeit under the Dear Leader’s guiding hand. Film professor Kim says he “helped” with the script and production of North Korea’s entry to Cannes, The Schoolgirl’s Diary.

Kim says it’s interesting to note that the teenage girl at the heart of the film carries a Mickey Mouse backpack and sometimes uses English words while chatting with her friends.

She ascribes such influence to the pirated DVDs and other merchandise from the West and Japan that peddlers carry across the border from China, and says that this movie proves that borders are opening.

“Just the fact that they submitted The Schoolgirl’s Diary to Cannes … this year shows they are interested in joining the rest of the world,” says Souk Yong Kim.


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