Since the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011, North Korean cinema has received a surge of interest. The facts and fictions surrounding the North Korean cultural propaganda industries are as dark as they are bizarre. This three part article interrogates the construction and the function of the myths surrounding North Korea's global image by examining the film produced there.
The ‘Othering’ of North Korea
The West’s recent fascination with North Korean cinema is perhaps unsurprising given that films are one of the only things that regularly manage to escape the country’s tightly maintained borders. Despite constant attempts, few people successfully ‘defect’ from North Korea and images of real life in the country are limited to what can be glimpsed from the border zones with the South, or related by those who have managed to flee. In an age of near total communication, life inside North Korea is perhaps the globalised world’s best kept secret; endlessly discussed but barely understood. So it is fascinatingly peculiar when from the depths of this sinister black hole what greets us is kitsch, B-movie Godzilla rip-offs executive-directed by Kim Jong-il.
In this light it’s clear why Western attention to North Korean cinema fixates on the ‘exotic’ nature of their film industry. Surely what we are drawn by is the layers of performance at play in North Korean films; by actors who we assume must play a double role, also ‘pretending’ to be happy North Korean citizens. Moreover, we are struck by how earnestly and naively they play the role of global movie stars, seemingly unaware of their country’s bizarre cinematic status. We look at them with an anthropological gaze, wondering what kind of humans they must be, or must have become, who spend long days at film school in order to dutifully and unquestioningly carry out the artistic desires of the dear leader.
Thanks to this ‘otherness’, North Korea’s film has garnered a cult status in the West and everyone from counter-culture aspirant VICE to international news vender Al Jazeera has been getting in on the act (pun intended) to celebrate the strangeness of the North Korean film industry. Al Jazeera even visited the film school in Pynogynang (after three failed attempts when the school was ‘closed for refurbishment’) to witness a carefully choreographed ‘lesson’ for Pynongyang’s budding acting talent.
It seems that this attention is knowingly coaxed and charmed by North Korea’s PR department which produces laughably bold statements about Kim Jong-il’s wide-reaching prowess (Kim is, according to North Korean press, the world’s best golfer, the inventor of the hamburger, and able to control the weather) and no less grandiose claims about the nation’s cultural output: “In recent years our film art has created an unprecedented sensation in the world’s filmdom… The revolutionary people of the world are unstinting in their praise… of [our] immortal revolutionary and popular films” Korean Review 1974.
These assertions of Kim’s North Korea’s talent for ‘film art’ are all the more amusing once you’ve actually seen the films made in North Korea (several are available on youtube here). The most widely discussed is Pulgasari. Made in 1985 it is Kim’s answer to the Godzilla franchise; a monster-movie directed by the captured Shin Sang-ok. ‘Endearing’ feels like the wrong word for anything produced under a dictator and as the direct result of a kidnapping but Pulgasari, is, amongst other things, a charmingly bad piece of cinema.
From its crude special effects to the neo-mythical narrative Pulgasari has the erratic amiability of a film like ‘The Clash of the Titans’ but is set in a feudal village more akin to Monty Python’s take on medieval Britain in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’ The plot opens with the village people in turmoil. The Governor’s men are confiscating all items made of iron from the distraught villagers to melt into weapons for the ‘war effort.’ A village elder clinging too tightly to his pans is beaten and imprisoned by the authorities. He dies in jail, leaving two children behind him, but not before fashioning a tiny monster out of rice from the bottom of his cell. This monster, Pulgasari, takes on a life of its own and is adopted by Ami (the man’s daughter and the story’s heroine) and her younger brother. At first he is a tiny dragon-like being (“so cute!”) with a quirky desire to eat metal and jerky, awkward movements (probably the result of the actor straining to move in a monster costume.) He warms the hearts of Ami and her brother, prancing around their room and eating sewing needles.
As he eats more iron Pulgasari grows bigger and bigger, eventually getting so big that he terrorises not only the chaotic army (who try to defeat him) but the villagers too. The long action scenes glorifying Pulgasari’s strength (full of ‘peowww peowww’ sounds as he heroically fires cannon balls straight back at the army after catching them in his teeth!) are interspersed with shots of concerned locals lamenting the loss of their iron possessions to Pulgasari’s stomach (“It even ate my pot!, “Oh, no! Not you pot too!?”)
Whilst Pulgasari is basically invincible, it soon becomes apparent that his insatiable iron addiction will end in world wars fought to provide for him. Eventually Ami is forced to sacrifice herself for the greater good. She smuggles herself into Pulgasarai’s open jaws within an iron cylinder and as Pulgasari crunches down on her small body they both meet their ends. Pulgarsari shrinks back down to a cute baby monster and leaps with a flash onto Ami’s lifeless face where he becomes a single tear drop.
Like many North Korean film narratives, the plot of Pulgasari can be read as a praise of the overcoming of Japanese rule in North Korea (1910 – 1945). The army are the Japanese occupiers and the revolutionary people are to be the citizens of the new North Korea under Kim Il-sung; their collective spirit but their lack of greed (they only want to keep their iron implements in order to be able to farm and cook!) are typical of North Korean cinema and its reiteration of the ‘Juche’ spirit. Fate of a Self-defence Corps Man (1970), developed from a story reportedly written by Kim Il-sung during the battle against the Japanese occupation also celebrates self-sacrifice and collective unity, as does Sea of Blood (1969) which is derived from another war-time novel about a farmer who becomes a national heroine through her fight with the Japanese. Self-sacrifice as a favourite theme is perhaps second only to the depiction of how contented, self-reliant and hardworking village life is, reflected in the titles of feature films like A Family of Workers, Rolling Mill Workers and A Flowering Village.
The country’s isolation means that unbiased facts on the reaction to films like Pulgasari from within North Korea are hard to come by. Though for outside audiences Kim’s curious productions have gained a somewhat cult following for their dodgy special effects and kitschy charm it is hard to determine whether cinema going is a popular or even available activity in North Korea. The Pyongyang International Cinema Hall and Kaeson Cinema apparently hold regular screenings but any North Koreans in attendance would certainly not be familiar with many of the Kim’s own points of reference, gained from the hours he spent consuming North American and Japanese movies. There is a manipulative absurdity of a despot who regulates cultural production inside the country he rules while having the sole privilege of experiencing arts outside his own nation: North Korean cinema is tangibly influenced by external filmic cultures (as in the obvious Godzilla/Pulgasari comparison), however its audience could only glean reflections from this external industry in the North Korean output; a Juched-up (sorry) synthesis of Western film.
Whilst there is certainly something funny about a dictator who convinces his captive/captivated country that his cinema is globally celebrated it is also incredibly sinister that to gain this reputation (and indeed to limit understanding of how forceful his general political rule is) he chooses to ban all cultural imports. Interactions with other nations are limited but when visitors do come Pynongyang is held up as the show city, where closely monitored guests, including Google executives and sports stars are given meticulously planned tours around the certain parts of the city; a pseudo-film set built to impress which, presumably, is a million miles from the conditions that most North Koreans live in.
Sly links to the outside
Pynongyang also hosts the Pyongyang International Film Festival which is one of the few events planned with the international community in mind. Two unlikely international collaborations with the North Korean film industry have received some press attention in the West. Comrade Kim Goes Flying, a joint British-Belgian-North Korean rom-com, and Aim High in Creation, a comedy about the ‘cinematic genius’ of Kim Jong-il by Australian Anna Broinowski, are both released this year. It will be interesting to see the reaction to these films. Whilst a good reception from North Korea’s indoctrinated citizens would be unsurprisingly (especially given the regime’s zero tolerance attitudes towards criticism or debate), surely the cheer of North Korean produced film must be jarring to a viewer with access to the news and to cinema from the rest of the world?
But the West does seem to be totally capable of enjoying the oddities of North Korean culture despite the fact that leaked reports from defectors about prison camps and national starvation are increasingly published (North Korean Defector Reveals The Horrifying Conditions Inside Secretive State's Concentration Camps, Huffington Post. North Korea: New images reveal true scale of political prison camps, Amnesty International). Such reports indicate that outside of the cities life differs harshly from the cheerful feudal scenes in many North Korean films.
That collaborations even exist between North Korean and Western cinema industries is a testament to the extent to which the comic face of North Korea is enjoyed and the horror of the country downplayed entirely. For North Korea to agree to collaborate with the West or for Western film makers to want to engage with the North Korean industry there has to be a distinct lack of Western coverage of North Korean human rights abuses. Flippantly, we could say that when there are plenty of human rights violations elsewhere it is more interesting, amusing and profitable for Western media to celebrate absurdity in North Korean than to condemn the government’s treatment of its people. But is there a more profound geopolitical sense in which the image of North Korea as a funny fantasy land works for the West and for North Korea itself?
Whilst Pulgasari might, on one level, be deeply funny, and whilst there is certainly something ludicrous about a kidnaping motivated by cinematic aspirations, the message of North Korean cinema is clearly deeply thought out, not just accidentally hilarious. Stories of dire conditions in North Korea continue to reach the West and it is difficult to reconcile reports of torture with the stranger than fiction tales of Kim’s childlike obsession with film, his 15,000 DVD collection and his love of Elizabeth Taylor. It’s hard to believe that North Korea isn’t a toy-town Disneyland owned by a benevolent cartoon villain and this is certainly how the nation is treated by much of the Western press.
Arguably, this means that maybe some of the propaganda has worked on us. We need to ask ourselves what work does this image of the comic dictator/director do? Does it enable North Korea to function, in some respects, as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, allowing filmic collaborations with the West and, more sinisterly, shrouding the country’s multiple human rights abuses in a double-bluff spectacle of naff cinema? Who benefits from this internationally maintained facade? We may laugh and proclaim Kim Jong-un the ‘World’s Sexiest Man Alive’ (The Onion) but the cuddly-film-fanatic-despot is a convenient distraction story for one of history’s most frightening characters.