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 [Asia Times]North Korea's Dear Film Buff

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PostSubject: [Asia Times]North Korea's Dear Film Buff   Thu 14 Jun - 22:18

By John Feffer



The North Korean film projectionist is thinking back on her earlier life. When
she was younger, she tells the camera, she dreamed of acting. She wanted to
play a heroic role on the screen. Her eyes take on a wistful look. And there is
a hint of pain in her voice. In any other country, this would be an ordinary
show of emotion. In North Korea, however, the ordinary is extraordinary, for
outsiders catch a glimpse of it so very rarely.

The North Korean woman, Han Yong-sil, is one of four film projectionists
featured in a new documentary, Comrades in Dreams. Directed by Ulli
Gaulke, a young German filmmaker, the documentary ties together the lives of
cinema lovers from four countries: the United States, Burkino Faso, India and
North Korea.

While all the footage is fascinating, the material from North Korea is unique.
Films from and about North Korea rarely pierce the carefully constructed
surface that the country and its citizens present to the outside world. Yet
here, captured by Gaulke, Comrade Han reveals an individual personality behind
the ritualized propaganda that she initially offers the camera.

Film has played an unusually prominent role in North Korean culture and
history. Although it opens an important window on to a closed society, North
Korean film has been a singularly overlooked subject. North Korean films are
almost never shown in the United States. They rarely appear in international
film festivals. Few articles have been written on the subject.

That all may change soon, however. A French company has just bought the rights
to show the North Korean film A Schoolgirl's Diary, reportedly seen by 8
million North Koreans, more than one-third of the population. Scholars are
beginning to comb through North Korean films for clues about how the system
ticks. And documentaries like Comrades in Dreams and the latest effort
from Dan Gordon and Nicholas Bonner, Crossing the Line, are attracting
attention at film festivals around the world.

The US and North Korea are inching closer together as a result of ongoing
nuclear negotiations. With normalized relations on the agenda, information
about North Korean society becomes ever more valuable. But do North Korean
films ultimately reveal or conceal the reality of the country?

Bring up the subject of North Korean film and most people would be hard pressed
to name a single title. But nearly every article about North Korean leader Kim
Jong-il mentions that he's a film buff with one of the largest film collections
in the world. In fact, Kim started out in the cinema world. The rise of the
"Dear Leader" to political leadership is linked inextricably to his
film career.

"Kim Jong-il used film to prove that he was the legitimate guardian of his
father Kim Il-sung's legacy," explained Kim Suk-young, a specialist on
North Korean theater and film at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
"Kim Il-sung was very keen on protecting his legacy as a national father. So
Kim Jong-il in the 1970s used film to prove that he was the legitimate
heir."

These films helped solidify his father's personality cult and demonstrated that
Kim Il-sung's successor, unlike Deng Xiaoping in China or Mikhail Gorbachev in
the Soviet Union, would avoid any iconoclastic reforms.

Kim Jong-il was not the first person in North Korea to recognize the political
uses of film. The regime early on realized the revolutionary potential of the
medium. When it took control over the northern half of the Korean Peninsula at
the end of World War II, the North Korean Workers' Party under Kim Il-sung
relied heavily on Soviet assistance. The Soviets, having pioneered film
technique in the early days of the Russian Revolution, offered cinematic help
as well.

From the very start, however, North Korea showed its independent streak by not
following the Soviet model. "Even at its very beginning," writes
historian Charles Armstrong, North Korean cinema "was diverging from its
Soviet sponsors' aims by creating a distinctive cinema rooted in melodramatic
emotionalism, a sentimental attachment to the Korean countryside, and the
alleged values of peasant life, and a nationalist politics centered around the
person of Kim Il-sung".

To merge Soviet communism with North Korean nationalism - all rolled into the
package of Kim Il-sung's personality cult - film was the ideal medium. As Kim
Suk-young explains, it is much easier to send films throughout the country as a
propaganda tool than, for instance, relying on traveling theater groups. More
important, Pyongyang could control the form and content from beginning to end.
Political speakers sent to deliver propaganda to the masses might succumb to
improvisation. Theater actors might give an unintended interpretative spin to
their lines of dialogue. But movies allow for total control - or as close as
the regime could get to total control in the cultural sphere.

Re-imaging history

Unlike Josef Stalin, Kim Il-sung often clothed his political instruction in
narrative form. His multi-volume autobiography, for instance, is full of
stories and parables. But nothing could compare to the power of film to create
resonant images and stirring nationalist messages.

For instance, in the 1960s film On the Railway, set during the Korean
War, the train-engineer hero infiltrates the territory held by US and South
Korean forces and pretends to be a defector driving his train over to the other
side. He is, like Kim Il-sung, a trickster who achieves victory despite
overwhelming odds. He doesn't do so on behalf of the workers of the world,
however. He is fighting for the Korean fatherland and against the foreign
aggressor.

Other movies, such as An Jung Gun Shoots Ito Hirobumi and Star of
Chosun
, dramatize moments of Korean history such as the 1909 assassination
of a Japanese colonial official and the life of Kim Il-sung. Like the 1915 US
film The Birth of a Nation, these films present a rewritten history that
can replace authentic memory and balanced scholarship. A government can censor
books. But film has the appearance of reality and can more seductively change
how a citizenry understands its past.

Kim Jong-il put his stamp on North Korean filmmaking with his involvement in
productions such as Sea of Blood and Flower Girl. These films,
adapted from revolutionary operas credited to his father Kim Il-sung,
established a cultural vocabulary similar to the opera productions that Madame
Mao (Jiang Qing) unleashed on the Chinese population during the Cultural
Revolution (so memorably described in Anchee Min's memoir Red Azalea).

The language of these operas-turned-films, which both describe the atrocities
of the Japanese colonial period, defined the parameters of acceptable cultural
discourse. The images became iconic, like the Biblical tableaux that appeared
in classical painting and formed the visual vocabulary of pre-modern European
culture.

By the late 1970s, having established his bona fides with his father,
Kim Jong-il perceived that North Korean film had hit a dead end. At that time,
he already possessed an extraordinary collection of world cinema. He understood
the widening gap between the international and the national. To bridge the gap,
Kim Jong-il sought help from outside.


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PostSubject: Re: [Asia Times]North Korea's Dear Film Buff   Thu 14 Jun - 22:21

Revolution lite

One of the most popular films in Bulgaria in the late 1980s was North Korea's Hong
Kil Dong
(1986). A classic tale of a Korean Robin Hood, the film introduced
Hong Kong-style action to the Soviet bloc. The ninja moves and soaring
kicks dazzled East European audiences. "Hong Kil Dong attracted
hundreds of thousands of people to the cinemas across Bulgaria," writes
Todor Nenov. "It was almost impossible to get tickets for it, unless you
booked them two or three days earlier!"

Borrowing from Hong Kong action movies was only one of the ways that the North
Korean film industry revived itself in the 1980s. Kim Jong-il borrowed more
directly from outside when he arranged for the abduction of South Korean
actress Choi Eun-hee in 1978. Six months later, Kim abducted her estranged
husband, famous South Korean director Shin Sang-ok.

Before the pair managed to escape in 1986 during a stopover in Vienna, Shin
Sang-ok introduced many new innovations into North Korean film. His most famous
films during this period - a North Korean version of Godzilla called Pulgasari
and a retelling of the famous Korean folk tale of Chunhyang called Love,
Love, My Love
- added science fiction and musical romance to the North
Korean repertoire.

It is difficult to know whether the entertaining aspects of Hong Kil-Dong
and Shin Sang-ok's movies distracted North Korean moviegoers from the political
messages or made those messages easier to absorb. The historical and
fantastical settings allowed for greater leeway in presenting stories. Although
the screenplays nod in the direction of the People, the writers needn't lard
the narrative with adoring references to the country's leader or address the
tasks facing contemporary North Korean society.

The contemporary love story in Traces of Life (1989) is by contrast
entirely subordinate to the political message of building a utopian society.
The movie tells the story of a grieving widow. Her husband has died in a
suicide mission that blows up an invading South Korean ship. Guilty about
arguing with him on the night he left to make the sacrifice, she exiles herself
to the countryside, where she becomes a farmer and eventually raises rice
production to unprecedented levels.

She thus transforms her love of husband into love of country. When Kim Il-sung
himself comes to her farm and praises the collective's success, her love
achieves its apotheosis. The love of the hero leader has absolved her of the
guilt she felt about not living up to the ideal of her hero husband.

Romance in North Korean films tends to be of the revolutionary not the bourgeois
variety. As Ri Hyang, the character in Urban Girl Comes to Get Married
(1993), explains to her friend, she wants "a man with perfume". Her
friend, surprised, replies that "a man is not a flower". Ri Hyang
continues: she is looking for "a man who creates his life with great
ambition, a man who is respected by people".

Although Urban Girl has a much lighter touch than Traces of Life,
the message is the same: love should be reserved for those who want and can
build "paradise on earth". If that means partnering with the fellow
on the farm who spends night and day working on a better breed of duck, as
urban girl Ri Hyang ultimately does in the film, so be it.

Utopian dreams

Films in North Korea do not simply carry messages. They model behavior. Han Yong-sil,
the projectionist in Comrades in Dreams, explains that the audiences for
her films learn about new agricultural advances. And indeed, Urban Girl
features information about livestock breeding and rice transplanting, and Traces
of Life
provides information on microbial fertilizer.

But the films don't just supply technical content. They model revolutionary
virtues. Kim Suk-young points to the popularity of amateur contests in which
average North Koreans learn the lines of famous movie parts and then compete
for the honor to present their monologues at the finals in Pyongyang. "It
sounds very oppressive to us," she says, "but there's comfort in
identifying with those heroes." In this way we see that North Korean films
don't simply reveal or conceal reality. They actively construct North Korean
society.

As a projectionist on a model farm, Han Yong-sil also struggles to live up to
the examples set in the films she shows. Her husband is far away on an
assignment to beautify Mount Paektu, the reputed birthplace of the Dear Leader.
This is an important mission and, like the heroine of Traces of Life,
she knows that she should subordinate her personal loneliness to the good of
the nation. Still, it is clear that she finds this task very difficult.

Her display of emotions reveals the normalcy of North Koreans. Ironically, it
is this very normalcy, because it falls short of the revolutionary ideal, that
the North Korean government is loath to reveal to the world. And so the outside
world tends to perceive North Koreans as slightly unreal, as mere mouthpieces
for government propaganda.

In the 1960s and even into the 1970s, the utopian themes in North Korean cinema
went hand in hand with the rising expectations of the population. After the
devastation of World War II and then the Korean War, North Korea rapidly
rebuilt itself. The government prided itself on the various industrial and
agricultural advances that put it on par with and even ahead of South Korea. By
the 1980s, however, North Korea was stagnant. It had fallen behind not only
South Korea but even its own previous standards.

It is interesting that Kim Jong-il perceived that North Korean film, too, was
stagnant at this time. A kind of cognitive dissonance must have begun to emerge
among the North Korean population. The government and the films were portraying
an ever-improving society and yet the population must have been noticing that
reality was stubbornly not keeping pace. In the Soviet Union, during the years
under Leonid Brezhnev, people could get their entertainment elsewhere - foreign
films, books, samizdat publications. But North Koreans, until very
recently, did not have any alternatives. And so the North Korean film industry
turned to escapism, like romance stories.

But even escapism has its limits, for there is a utopian quality to Urban
Girl
and Pulgasari as well. Perhaps in response to the growing
cognitive dissonance, the North Korean entertainment industry has begun to
address new themes: divorce, love triangles, the double and triple shifts of
women. "These dramas dealing with failure suggest that people are craving
something different," observes Kim Suk-young.


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PostSubject: Re: [Asia Times]North Korea's Dear Film Buff   Thu 14 Jun - 22:21

Reaching out?

The North Korean government boasts of its world-class film industry. But since
a devastating loss in an international film festival in Czechoslovakia in the
early 1970s, North Korea hasn't tried very hard to promote its films abroad.

Pyongyang has, however, hosted its own international film festival since 1987
and allows visitors to its film studio. "North Korea has never been shy
about propagandizing its grand achievements, and the film industry is not
something secretive," said journalist Ron Gluckman. "You can visit
the studios as part of a tourist itinerary.

"I did so on my first visit to North Korea back in 1992. I visited again
in 2004, and the equipment shown off was definitely ancient. I suspect they
have been unable to keep up to date due to the economic situation, and film has
suffered as a consequence."

More recently, the government has allowed outside directors to make films
inside the country. Pyongyang Crescendo (2005) follows the story of a
German conductor who spent 10 days in the North Korean capital teaching music
students. Dan Gordon and Nicholas Bonner have produced three documentary films:
on the North Korean soccer team that made it to the World Cup quarterfinals in
1966, on two girls training for the mass games in Pyongyang, and most recently
on the US soldier James Dresnok, who defected to North Korea in 1962.

The Game of Their Lives, the 2002 soccer documentary, showed that films
could be made in North Korea, said Nick Bonner. However, the country isn't
exactly issuing a general invitation to the film world. "It is still very
difficult to film in [North Korea] and is certainly a case-by-case
situation," Bonner added.

With A Schoolgirl's Diary, the North Korean film industry will try once
again to break into the international market. In this 2006 release, a teenager
complains that her scientist father is too busy to pay attention to her. It is,
according to reviews, a "humorous drama about a rebellious teenage
girl". It offers a picture of the North Korean elite that, in the film,
uses computers, carries Mickey Mouse schoolbags, and eats good food.

It shows a few flaws in the system, such as deteriorating housing stock. But
these are, according to Bonner, the "day-to-day flaws that fit the story
line of struggle during this time when great sacrifice is needed to build a
strong country".

Regardless of whether A Schoolgirl's Diary attracts an international
audience on the merits of its story and its filmmaking, it will be an important
document of North Korea's evolving society. It will also show what kind of
model behavior the government now wants to inculcate in its citizens.

"We might have to imagine the world with North Korea for another 25 or 50
years," Kim Suk-young concludes. "We should look at film in order to
understand and co-exist and to have a glimpse of North Korea instead of
reducing it to a one-dimensional propaganda tool."


Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd.
All rights reserved.
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