The People's Cinema
By Timothy Savage
During my recent trip to North Korea, I had a rare opportunity to see a North Korean action film. Film plays an important role in North Korean culture, as the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong-il, is a notorious aficionado of the cinema. Kim wrote a book on "Cinema and the Art of Directing" (it's been translated into English and is available at the Library of Congress). In the 1970s, he kidnapped a famous Korean husband-and-wife acting team and brought them to Pyongyang to teach him about film-making. Reportedly, Kim Jong-il's favorite movie is "Gone with the Wind."
While the Dear Leader himself may get to see any films he chooses, North Korea's hoi polloi are not so fortunate. Film, as with everything else in North Korea, is strictly controlled to ensure that its content gels with the aims of the Korean Workers' Party. As a result, many of the films are heavily didactic in nature. A recent edition of the Pyongyang Times (an English-language North Korean propaganda sheet distributed abroad) highlighted the release of a new feature film called White Smoke. According to the article, the film "deals with how a young scientist Yu Chol goes out to a thermal power station, takes on and makes it through an important research which was left halfway by the death of his father, thus making it possible to save coal and increase combustion efficiency." What can be more riveting than increasing combustion efficiency!
The list of the films available for our entertainment at the Seaman's Club in Nampo reflect the priorities of the regime. Many of the films dealt with strongly nationalist themes. As a student of Korean History, I naturally wanted to watch An Chung-Gun Kills Ito Hirobumi, but I was overruled by my colleagues in favor of Hong Kil Dong, a film about a legendary 15th century Korean martial arts hero.
Having made arrangements the previous night with the ajossi who ran the hotel's recreation center, we were led into a small cinema with approximately 50 or so seats in front of a large screen. In the back was a podium with a microphone; our handler, Mr. Pak (a man who combines all the best qualities of propagandist and cruise director) gallantly took the mike to act as a one-man dubbing machine for the film.
The film tells the story of Hong Kil Dong, the son of a yangban by a concubine. Driven out of their home by the yangban's jealous wife, Kil Dong and his mother are set on by a band of bandits but rescued by his grandfather, a master of martial arts and magic. The old man takes Kil Dong under his wing and molds the boy into a great fighter. One day, after he's fully grown, Kil Dong rescues a young, aristocratic girl from a band of kidnappers. The two fall hopelessly in love. The girl's father, grateful for his daughter's rescue and discovering that Kil Dong is the son of a yangban, offers her in marriage to the boy. But Minister Hong's legitimate wife apprises the girl's parents of Kil Dong's illegitimate parentage, and the marriage is called off. Distraught, Kil Dong leaves the capital of Seoul and heads out to the provinces to live as a Robin Hood, saving poor, downtrodden peasants from the ravages of greedy landlords and corrupt local officials.
While Kil Dong's fame is increasing, a new menace has begun to ravage the land. A band of foreign pirates from the East (read: Japan) are rampaging throughout the country, robbing homes and kidnapping young girls for nefarious purposes. Desperate, the King turns to the famous young outlaw to save the country. Kil Dong of course prevails, freeing the young girls, including his own sweetheart, who is apparently more prone to abduction than Scully in The X-files. In gratitude, the King offers him anything he wants. Kil Dong, of course, only wants one thing, the hand of his beloved in marriage. The King is all too willing to accept, until Kil Dong's illegitimacy is made known to him. The King decides such a marriage would be detrimental to the country and forbids it. In the final scene, Kil Dong, his lover, and his mother are sailing off to a distant island, while the narrator asks if they'll ever be able to find a land without class prejudice.
In "Kim Il-sung's North Korea," a declassified CIA study based on numerous interviews with North Korean defectors, the author notes that North Koreans find most movies tedious, laden as they are with heavy-handed propaganda about the Kim family (or about thermal power plants). Occasionally, however, a movie is made with entertainment, rather than propaganda, as its primary motivation. These films are far more popular among the masses, and allow the filmmakers themselves more creative license than the usual stories about the Great Leader fighting the Japanese in Manchuria.
The cult worship of the Kim family is pervasive throughout North Korean society, and reaches beyond just Kim Il-song and Kim Jong-il to encompass the elder Kim's wife, parents, and grandparents. For one example, the U.S.S. Pueblo, an American spy ship seized by North Korea in 1968, has been towed from its capture site outside Wonsan up the Taedong River and now sits at the site near Pyongyang where an American merchant ship was sunk in 1866. The plaque at the site attributes the sinking to none other than the Great Leader's grandfather. The only way for a North Korean filmmaker to escape the need to credit the Kim family with everything that happens in Korea is to choose a subject that's sufficiently ancient to allow for non-Kim protagonists. Thus choosing a traditional theme gives the film makers more leeway within the oppressive requirements of North Korea's propaganda system.
Still, to pass muster the film still must hit certain "politically correct" themes: anti-classism and anti-Japanese nationalism. One has to wonder, though, whether the filmmakers might have intended some degree of irony in depicting the yangban as greedy malevolent parasites who gorge themselves on fine food and kisaengs while the peasants starve. The comparison with present-day North Korea, whose elites live in private duchies and get chauffeured around in Mercedes-Benz's while the masses walk countless miles for lack of fuel is all-too striking, although perhaps lost on a population benumbed by decades of official hype about the Workers' Paradise.
In terms of production value, "Hong Kil Dong" is on par with most Hong Kong kung fu flicks. It's full of elaborate fight scenes, stunning period costumes, and the occasional gory bit of blood-letting. As with most such films, the acting tends toward the melodramatic, but does not cross the line into crassness. The director intersperses plenty of long shots of winding paths between mountain ridges, reflecting the natural aesthetic that is common to North Korean art--in contrast to the Socialist Realism that pervaded Eastern European regimes during the Cold War. Indeed, the casual observer shown this movie would likely not be able to tell that it was made in North, rather than South, Korea.
Ultimately, this is where George Orwell got it wrong. Even in the most repressive regime on earth, a human aesthetic can still continue and even thrive, and people can still go to movies just for the fun of it.
Timothy Savage works as Security Program Officer for Northeast Asia at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development in Berkeley, California. He is also the co-creator of www.hanhakmoon.com, a review of Korean culture, society, and media.