Screening North Korea

Film poster for A Schoolgirl’s Diary. Photo by Nicholas Bonner.

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 the 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 onto 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 United States and North Korea are inching closer together as a result of the 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?

The Dear Film Buff

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,” explains Kim Suk-Young, a North Korea theater and film specialist 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 Worker’s 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, “DPRK 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 importantly, 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 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 with 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 U.S. 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, like 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 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 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.

Revolution Lite

Film poster for Hong Kil Dong. Photo by Nicholas Bonner.

One of the most popular films in Bulgaria in the late 1980s was the North Korean film 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 2 or 3 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 Mt. 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, which the North Korean government is loathe 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 Brezhnev years, 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.

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,” says 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 Pyongyang 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 U.S. 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 the DPRK,” says Nick Bonner. However, the country isn’t exactly issuing a general invitation to the film world. “It is still very difficult to film in DPRK and is certainly a case-by-case situation,” Bonner adds.

With A Schoolgirl’s Diary, the North Korean film industry will be trying 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 coexist and to have a glimpse of North Korea instead of reducing it to a one-dimensional propaganda tool.”

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus. A version of this essay will appear in Korean Quarterly.