The Great North Korean Picture Show

The Great North Korean Picture Show Review

The Great North Korean Picture Show

Johannes Schonherr

The Dear Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, was not only a cineaste with a vast film collection, he was also very active in film production. The son of the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, entered the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers Party in the mid-1960's and produced his first film, The Path To Awakening, in 1965.

Kim Jong Il visiting a North Korean film studio in 1979.
Kim Jong Il visiting a North Korean film studio in 1979.

According to the English online edition of the North-Korean state newspaper Rodong Shinmun, Kim Jong Il oversaw during his lifetime the production of more than 900 films. They included works dubbed "Immortal Masterpieces" by their North Korean promoters like the Sea of Blood (1968) and Flower Girl (1972). The latter became a huge success in China where millions saw the film, it also won a Special Prize at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in Czechoslovakia, the most prestigious film festival in the Eastern Block.

In the late 1970's, Kim Jong Il imported South Korean director Shin Sang Ok and his movie star wife Choi Un Hee (by force they later said) to upgrade the quality of North Korean film-making. Shin Sang Ok directed the legendary Godzilla-inspired monster movie Pulgasari (1986) shortly before he took the chance and escaped from North Korea together with this wife during a business trip to Vienna.

Flower Girl a North Korean classic movie.
Flower Girl a North Korean classic released in 1972.

Undeterred, Kim Jong Il went on producing movie after movie. He was said to have been involved in every step of every production. The script, the shooting, the editing. Now, that might have been an exaggeration. But he certainly did review every production before release and if it did not meet his expectations, he demanded re-shooting and re-editing.

Already in 1973, Kim Jong Il (or ghostwriters under his supervision) had written and published Kim Jong Il's manifesto on North Korean film making: On the Art of the Cinema. The lengthy and very repetitive book details every aspect to be considered in North Korean film production, from deciding on which topic should make it to the screen to all the steps including acting, directing, music, props, etc. until the final editing. The book is still the bible of all North Korean film making and the rules it lays down are still strictly being followed.

It used to be very difficult to access the actual films in the West, however. In Japan, you had to look for obscure video releases by the North Korea-dependent General Association of Koreans in Japan (aka Chosen Soren).

Nowadays, plenty of North Korean films can be watched via youtube. This channel for example offers 35 of them, most of them subtitled in English.

Flower Girl a North Korean classic movie.
Mural of Kim Jong Il on the set of The Sea of Blood - photo by Jouni Hokkanen.
Great North Korean Picture Show.
Japanese flyer for the Great North Korean Picture Show.

The Documentary by James Leong and Lynn Lee

The Singaporean documentary film couple James Leong and Lynn Lee went to North Korea in 2008 when one of their works was invited to the Pyongyang International Film Festival. Encountering North Korean cinema for the first time, Leong and Lee were fascinated. The strange "Hollywood" of Kim Jong Il seemed to be waiting to be discovered. They quickly made up their minds and decided to focus their next documentary on the subject.

But access to anything North Korean beyond the tourist-tour monuments has always been a tricky affair. Leong and Lee finally succeeded in getting permission to shoot. They had to agree to a few important rules for doing so: they would always be accompanied by a minder and they had to hand over all material they had shot for review by censors in the evening of the same day. Tough rules for someone trying to capture how North Korean cinema really works.

Over the course of four visits, Leong and Lee built up their relationship with the North Koreans. They were slowly given more and more leeway, though of course within the strict boundaries of North Korean censorship. Leong and Lee clearly spell out the conditions under with they had to work within the film.

The scenes Leong and Lee were eventually able to include into their film are amazing. First of all, one should mention the Pyongyang street scenes. They are gritty, rough and realistic. Quite unlike the polished pictures North Korea propaganda departments like to hand out. Sure, Pyongyang is a city full of holy monuments glorifying the Kim clan - but the daily commuters waiting for their vintage trolley buses don't seem to give them a second glance.

We are then introduced to the three main characters documented in the film: Kim Un Bom, Lee Yun Mi and Pyo Gwang.

Pyo Gwang is an established North Korean movie director best known for his 2006 martial arts flick Pyongyang Nalpharam. Pyo permitted Leong and Lee to shoot him directing scenes for his newest work, a historical drama set in the early 1900's.

Pyongyang Nalpharam directed by Pyo Gwang.
Pyongyang Nalpharam directed by Pyo Gwang.

Japan is taking over Korea and the Korean army is dissolved in the process, on the order of the still officially ruling Korean emperor. On a fiercely rainy day, heartbroken Korean soldiers sing a sad, defiant song before being forced to throw down their rifles in front of the Japanese occupiers. A dramatic scene for sure. It calls for expressions of profound loss and grave resentment. Those soldiers must have felt like losing the whole purpose of their lives.

The reality of the shooting, as documented by Leong and Lee, however showed that the production of propaganda can be tough business.

Actual conscripts of the North Korean Army had been sent over as extras to film the scene. Life as a North Korean soldier is certainly not a picnic. For the young conscripts dressed up in historical uniforms, the day of film shooting must have seemed like a holiday. They certainly behave that way. Director Pyo Gwang has a hard time to take the grins out of their faces.

Leong and Lee capture the whole affair in intricate detail. Their observations look hilarious but very sad at the same time. Just look at the movie's promotional trailer featuring a brief scene of that shooting.

North Korean VCD cover.
North Korean VCD cover.
Lee Yun Mi in a North Korean dance class.
Lee Yun Mi in a North Korean dance class © Lianain Films.

Pyongyang University of Cinematic and Dramatic Arts

Leong and Lee also persistently asked for access to the Pyongyang University of Cinematic and Dramatic Arts, the film school training all future talent. There, they eventually met Kim Un Bom, the son of a famous North Korean actor and his equally famous actress wife.

Un Bom shows a photo album with pictures of is mother in Cambodia as an actress in a North Korean co-production with Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk. Too bad, the documentary provides neither the actual names of Kim Un Bom's parents nor the titles of the movies they were featured in. North Korea researchers screening the movie for information on North Korean cinema would certainly want to know more. Especially about that Cambodian co-production.

Kim Un Bom is an eager drama student - and it is him who quotes Kim Jong Il's directives on how to act at every moment he is filmed. Does he believe in them himself? According to the documentary, he really does. He wants to be a good actor to give joy to the leader, he says repeatedly.

Shooting of student play.
Shooting of student play © Lianain Films.

Lee Yun Mi is also a young student actress and she and Kim Un Bom train hard for a student play to be filmed as a class assignment. Unfortunately but quite expectedly, the shooting of the student play, covered in detail in the documentary, is in no way as exciting as the great scenes of Pyo Gwang directing the military extras.

Altogether, The Great North Korean Picture Show provides a very realistic, touching and at many times funny insight into the day-to-day operations of a still very little explored film industry. Most North Korean films may be propaganda - but their making is a great challenge nonetheless.

The Great North Korean Picture Show will go on a roadshow in Japan under the title Cinema Paradiso Pyongyang (シネマ パラダイス ピョンヤン) starting in March 2014 at Image Forum in Tokyo.

The film will be shown with both English and Japanese subtitles.

The film is also available online for paying viewers here on Vimeo

See the website for the film here

Related BBC article on North Korean cinema.

The Great North Korean Picture Show Trailer

Guide Books on North Korea