The New York Times, 21.11.2008
Photo ©2008 by Malte Herwig. No reproduction without prior permission and credit
North Korea’s Very Cautious Cinematic Thaw
PYONGYANG, North Korea
HUMOR may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the citizens of North Korea, a country known mostly for militant anti-Western propaganda, chronic food shortages and an internationally isolated government pursuing nuclear weapons.
And yet audiences at the 11th Pyongyang International Film Festival here clearly enjoyed themselves this fall during screenings of Western dramas and comedies, occasionally even erupting into riotous laughter.
In most other countries movies like Marcus H. Rosenmüller’s “Heavyweights,” a lighthearted comedy about a group of Bavarian villagers contending in the 1952 Winter Olympics, would be harmless fun. But not in North Korea, and to prove it there was a man with a piece of cardboard sitting in the projection room to cover the lens in case anything deemed unseemly to Korean eyes was shown.
That day, mercifully, the cardboard-wielding censor wasn’t particularly good at his job. His hapless attempts to maintain officially sanctioned decency only added to the amusement of the 2,000 moviegoers in the gigantic Pyongyang International Cinema House, who responded energetically to the sight of a half-dozen outsize German bobsledders baring their bottoms and stuffing themselves with food and beer to gain weight for a competition.
It was an unusual sight in this corner of the world, to say the least.
After more than a decade of natural disasters, famine and economic mismanagement, everyday life is no laughing matter for the 23 million Koreans north of the demilitarized zone, which has separated the Koreas since the end of the war between the two countries in 1953. For the past 60 years they have lived under the rule of just two men: the founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, and his son Kim Jong-il.
Mr. Kim, who is known to be a film buff and connoisseur of Hollywood movies, reportedly finances a three-story building in Pyongyang with a full-time staff of 250 that houses his collection of 20,000 films from all over the world. Regular citizens must settle for homegrown propaganda movies like “Five Guerilla Brothers,” “An Azalea Behind Enemy Lines” and “Wormwood Rice Cake, National Food.”
But the festival, which ran from Sept. 17 to 26 and screened more than 100 films from at least 45 nations, including China, Russia, France and Italy (though not the United States, Japan or South Korea), offered a rare chance for ordinary North Koreans to get a glimpse of the outside world.
An estimated 120,000 tickets were sold or distributed at workplaces throughout the city. Movies like Britain’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” Germany’s “And Along Came Tourists” and the Chinese war drama “Assembly,” which carried off the festival prize as best film, played before full houses. Such was the run on tickets that large crowds had to be turned back by uniformed guards, and doors were chained once performances started.
After arriving, audience members were told through loudspeakers to sit in their own chairs and not leave any trash behind. (No one needed to be reminded to switch off their cellphones, as they are illegal in North Korea and all international visitors have to leave theirs at the airport on arrival.)
Most screenings took place at the International Cinema House, an imposing concrete structure built on an island in the Taedong River, which flows through the capital. Unlike earlier festivals, this one had no physical barriers separating North Koreans from foreigners — mostly producers, distributors and movie executives — although the official “guides” were keen to prevent any contact with the locals.
The festival is not your usual red-carpet, celebrity-studded affair. Or is it, just with a North Korean accent? Both in popular culture and as a propaganda tool, film is a central element of contemporary life here, and North Korean cinema has its own star system. Famous actors are depicted on murals around the city and even on official currency.
“Kim Jong-il sees film as a highly effective tool to maintain his power,” Suk-Young Kim, a scholar of Korean film at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said in a telephone interview. “For him, it’s one of the primary means of governing.”
The closest you get to the Hollywood walk of fame is probably the Cemetery of the Patriotic Martyrs in the suburbs of Pyongyang, where a number of famous performers are buried. Mind you, they owe their fame largely to one person, and they know it. “The ordinary film artists,” a booklet titled “Great Man and Art” informs the English reader, “have been able to ascend the high eminence of immortality under the special care of Comrade Kim Jong-il, their benevolent teacher and father.”
Speaking after a screening of the film “Flower Girl” (1972), the actress Hong Young-hee recalled the advice Mr. Kim gave her on the set: “The great general advised me how to wear my straw shoes properly and gave me meticulous guidance in acting, costume and props.”
It was difficult to break free from the official program, given the tight schedule of visits to sites honoring the exploits of the two Kims combined with the remote island location of the festival cinema and the hotel where most foreign visitors stayed. Any detour had to be applied for at least a day in advance, and even then the answer would often be a curiously diplomatic “Maybe it is impossible.”
It was only after much persuasion that I managed to get into a screening at the Kaeson cinema in downtown Pyongyang, which was decorated with propaganda slogans and a heroic mural showing the two Kims. A large crowd of North Koreans seemed to enjoy “When the Raven Flies,” an unspeakably bad 1984 movie about murderous Vikings in medieval Iceland that was not improved by being (like all other foreign films here) voiced-over in Korean. But perhaps it was a welcome change of pace from fare like “We Are the Happiest” and “Affection-Permeated Land.”
Generally speaking, historical dramas or films from countries like Iran and Bangladesh are deemed less dangerous ideologically here than contemporary films from the West, which would expose North Koreans to a tempting display of Western life and wealth. Even so, the festival came with a health warning. At the opening ceremony the culture minister, Kang Nung-su, cautioned that filmgoing “must not harm the sound mind of the people.”
By all accounts economic difficulties have resulted in a dramatic decline in both the output and the quality of North Korean cinema. “We are now making only two to three feature films a year,” an official from the Korean Film Export and Import Corporation said, adding, “They’re not very good.”
One exception at the festival was “A Schoolgirl’s Diary” (2006), the most recent film from the prominent North Korean director Jang In-hak. The tale of a young girl whose father is working on a mysterious project far from home, it was a box office hit here, attracting an impressive eight million viewers, according to official figures, and even made it to Cannes. “It’s a very particular movie, which conveys rather well what one’s life should be” in North Korea, said James Velaise, whose company, Pretty Pictures, is distributing the film in France.
The only new North Korean film, on the other hand, was “The Kites Flying in the Sky” (2008), based on a true story of a woman who gives up her career as a marathon runner to care for orphaned children. The foreign delegates were mostly critical, calling the scriptwriting incoherent and propagandistic.
“Everyone loves movies,” Mr. Jang said over coffee at a hotel bar, “but there is no one who loves them as much as the Dear Leader. He is a genius of filmmaking.”
To prove his point he recounted how Mr. Kim ordered several dozen directors, screenwriters and cinematographers to attend movie boot camp several years ago. Holed up in a special hotel for six months, they watched more than 200 movies — a varied group that included “Gone With the Wind,” “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Braveheart” and “Troy” — and reported their observations about filmmaking techniques in letters to the Dear Leader.
Mr. Kim was unable to attend the boot camp, Mr. Jang said, “but he called us almost every day, sometimes in the early hours in the morning, to tell us what to look for in terms of story writing, acting and editing.”