In a lonely place: North Korea’s Pyongyang International Film Festival

What films are you allowed to see in North Korea, the world’s most secretive country? James Bell hands in his mobile phone and reports from the Pyongyang International Film Festival.

James Bell
Updated:

form our January 2009 issue

The grey skyline of North Korea’s capital Pyongyang is free of advertising and dotted with monuments to the ruling party.

The grey skyline of North Korea’s capital Pyongyang is free of advertising and dotted with monuments to the ruling party.
Credit: ©Philippe Chancel / courtesy Eric Franck Fine Art, London

Travelling to the Pyongyang International Film Festival in North Korea was going to be a trip like no other. What greeted me at Beijing airport to fly me to the world’s most secretive country confirmed this: waiting on the runway, in the otherwise ultra-modern airport, was an ageing Tupolev that had seen its best days in the 1970s. Its thick, pile carpet and wooden interior were reminiscent of an early Bond movie.

The rigorously controlled nature of any North Korean visit was made clear as soon as we arrived at Pyongyang Airport. Mobile phones are banned, so we handed ours to customs officials who assured us they would be returned upon leaving; laptops are allowed but there is no internet access for foreigners – or the majority of North Koreans.

In the arrivals lounge I got my first glimpse of the two smiling faces that proved inescapable at the festival: the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, and his son, the Dear Comrade Kim Jong-il (Dear Leader since 1994). Pictures of the pair hang outside buildings and on indoor walls across the country; every citizen wears a tiny Kim Il-sung badge on their left breast and all locally made films refer in some way to the glory of their achievements.

Pyongyang is immediately and strikingly different from any other city I’ve visited: few cars traverse the meticulously clean roads and every street is lined with bushes and trees. We passed huge squares and towering monuments, including a 60-foot bronze statue of Kim Il-sung. The mostly white buildings are free of advertising – except for the many murals that remind us of the need to resist American imperialism, and the ubiquitous portraits of the Kims, of course.

The hotel that houses all foreign guests is cut off from the rest of Pyongyang on Yanggakdo Island, which sits in the middle of the city’s Taedong river. Just in front of it is the Pyongyang International Cinema, a looming concrete structure straight out of a sci-fi set where the festival’s opening ceremony takes place. As the mix of wide-eyed foreign guests and sombrely suited Korean men made their way into the ceremony, an all-female marching band dressed in dazzling white-and-blue costumes sang stirring songs and performed a tightly choreographed dance routine. In contrast with the suited men, most women wore a traditional, flowing, primary-coloured dress known as the Hanbok. Our hostess wore a yellow Hanbok and delivered her introductions in a high-pitched, near-ecstatic tone. Atrociously soppy and predictable, the opening Chinese film, The Tender Heart, prompted many foreign guests to skip out early. For me the film was worth staying put for, if only to see how moving the Korean audience found it. My mission, in any case, was not to assess the latest international releases on the festival circuit; I was there to see what function cinema plays in the world’s most repressed and secretive society, and what locals might take from films offering them rare glimpses into other countries.

The Pyongyang International Film Festival’s opening ceremony

The Pyongyang International Film Festival’s opening ceremony

Pyongyang’s festival was founded in 1987, and has been held every two years since 1990. Initially known as the Film Festival of Non-Aligned and Other Developing Countries, its selection was limited to films from the Communist bloc and a handful of other sympathetic nations (didactic documentaries from Libya were reportedly a staple). With the fall of the Soviet Union, the festival slowly began to widen its reach, and this year’s edition was the most open yet.

There were of course no films from America, Japan or South Korea, but the selection included works from Iceland, France (The Page Turner), Australia (Unfinished Sky), the Czech Republic (Empties), Britain (Atonement, Elizabeth: The Golden Age), Germany (The Counterfeiters – somewhat ironic given North Korea’s reputation as a source for forged dollars) and many more. In all, 108 foreign films from 46 countries were screened. Outside sponsorship was also allowed for the first time, with DHL contributing $16,000 to assist in the transportation of prints, and there were other signs of new openness; whereas in previous years separate cinema entrances had been insisted on for foreigners and locals, this time everyone queued up together.

The propaganda programme

The first few days were like finding your way through a fog, until I worked out who to approach for information. A personal guide accompanied me at all times and I was forbidden from exploring the city alone; I would have to wait for the many trips to the various national monuments, shows and museums that made up a tight schedule. Strangeness was never far away. At one point my guide told me, “Tomorrow the delegation from Earth arrives.” She was referring to the Attenborough-fronted BBC nature-documentary Planet Earth, but in the island’s bubble-like confines, one could easily imagine a more fantastical scenario.

With no press office on hand to answer questions and arrange interviews, getting a sense of how films had been chosen proved difficult. Eventually, discreet interviews were arranged, and I spoke to a representative from Korfilm, the organisation with sole responsibility for theatrical distribution in North Korea. On trips to the Shanghai and Berlin festivals, she and her colleagues had made an initial selection of 500 films, which was then whittled down by a small committee of film-makers, government officials and academics to the 108 screened. Pressed on what this committee were looking for, she answered, “Films that suit the feelings of the Korean people.”

A Schoolgirl’s Diary (2006)

A Schoolgirl’s Diary (2006)

Though there was no single obvious theme linking the selection, there were many sentimental films about families. Large-scale period dramas were also popular – Chinese director Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly, set in 1948 during the Chinese civil war, took the festival’s top prize. British costume pics proved especially welcome – perhaps because they don’t show the contemporary reality of life in the west. There was an angry crush at the doors of the sell-out screening of Elizabeth: The Golden Age. British films had apparently also been the hits of previous festivals; the 2006 festival screened Bean, Billy Elliott and Bend It Like Beckham, and the 2002 festival featured a fondly recalled programme of classic Ealing comedies.

Apart from this festival, the vast majority of the population have almost no access to films from the west. They are limited mostly to a diet of the older Soviet, Cuban or Chinese films that can be bought at DVD stalls in the city, and occasional screenings on the Mansudae television channel. Accurate information about viewing habits was scarce, though some was gleaned by quizzing the guides, many of whom were English students or teachers at one of Pyongyang’s three universities and therefore had uniquely privileged access to DVD collections of English-language films. (Pirated DVDs smuggled over from China are now rumoured to find their way to the general population, much to the government’s dissatisfaction.)

Choice, therefore, isn’t as restricted as you might expect for some film lovers. Nearly all of the guides had seen Titanic (which has an added symbolic significance in North Korea because late President Kim Il-sung was born on the same day the ship sank, April 15, 1912). Most of the others had at least seen Gone With the Wind and Braveheart – both films that could be seen as examples of oppression at different times in western history. One guide had a more surprising list of films she had enjoyed at university: as well as Pride & Prejudice and Great Expectations there was the adaptation of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. There were American films, too. Tom Cruise was “cute” in The Firm, while the English-language film she had seen most recently was National Treasure, with Nicolas Cage.

As well as foreign titles, the festival hosted a programme, organised especially for foreign guests, of what they deemed to be classic films from North Korea’s 60-year history. Virtually all studios and archives were destroyed during the three years of the Korean War. After 1953, the studios had to be rebuilt from scratch. Like Stalin and Mao, Kim Il-sung extolled the propaganda value of cinema, and ordered films reflecting “socialist reality” to be made: “Like the leading article of the Party paper, the cinema should have great appeal and move ahead of the realities… it should play a mobilising role in the revolutionary struggle.” From the 1960s until the early 1990s, an average of 20 films were made each year, but it was frequently as many as 100. The Soviet Union and China supplied money and technology and, in turn, North Korean films were screened across the communist territories.

The Flower Girl (1970)

The Flower Girl (1970)

The Flower Girl (1970), adapted from a 1930 play written by Kim Il-sung, is a perennial favourite – it is referred to as North Korea’s Gone with the Wind. Set in the late 1920s and 1930s, when Korea was under Japanese occupation, it follows the misfortunes of a poor family brutalised by their Japanese landowners. Two sisters sell flowers to pay for medicine needed by their ailing mother who refuses to allow them to degrade themselves.

The horrors of Japanese occupation are laid on heavily – in one scene the younger sister is blinded by hot grains. There’s a clear message for younger audiences about the suffering their elders endured, and of heroic female sacrifice, both recurrent themes in the programme. The Flower Girl was a hit in China, and is still remembered affectionately. In a Beijing taxi on my way to the airport with a fellow British journalist, we mentioned that we were heading to Pyongyang. “Ah, Flower Girl!” the driver exclaimed before breaking into the film’s title song.

Older films in the programme usually referred – even if only allegorically – to the wars with Japan and America and to the collective effort needed to rebuild the country. Bellflower (1987) told of a man’s regret about his youthful decision to leave his lover and follow a wandering, indulgent life. The lover had selflessly stayed behind and helped to rebuild her village.

Despite the sloganeering (workers sing lines such as “Happiness is not a windfall, but is created by our hands”), Bellflower was the most cinematic film in the programme. There were on-message genre films too. The 1986 kung-fu film Hong kil dong aped the Shaw Brothers, but also told of a fight against foreign invaders: “It’s clear they are from abroad,” a local hero says. “As a nation we must rise up and defeat them.”

Since the 1990s, North Korean cinema has displayed a more realist aesthetic. Topics such as the generation gap and the devastating famine of the late 1990s come in for relatively serious treatment. Yet like all North Korean films, they suggest the answers are devotion to the state and the leadership of Kim Jong-il. As North Korean cinema expert Antoine Coppola has noted, political repression aside, North Korean cinema has typically been propaganda by instruction, not omission.

Party not personal

The economic realities of the post-Soviet world have been harsh on film production, with only five or six films produced annually since 2000. Only one new feature was screened at this year’s festival, the unremarkable The Kites Flying in the Sky – another story of female sacrifice, based on an apparently real-life case of a woman who abandons her promising career as a marathon runner to take in orphaned children.

More interesting was the veteran director Jang In-hok’s film A Schoolgirl’s Diary (2006), about a student unsure whether to follow her father into a life devoted to scientific research. In an impromptu interview at the hotel bar, Jang described how in 2007, Kim Jong-il, concerned at the failings in North Korean film, personally called a temporary halt to film production and installed Korea’s directors in a hotel (“Not quite like this one”) where they were apparently put through an eight-month course that involved watching 250 films handpicked by the Dear Leader himself. These included films by Zhang Yimou, Japanese film-maker Yamada Yôji and even Steven Spielberg. A representative from Korfilm corroborated this far-fetched sounding story to explain why only two features have been released in the past two years. She added that seven films, all beneficiaries of the Dear Leader’s scheme, are due for release in 2009.

Kim Jong-il is well known to be a film fan. He is said to have a personal collection of 20,000 DVDs, and would have become a director if he hadn’t been called upon to lead the country. Many people shared admiring anecdotes of his visits to film sets, where his timely advice to the director on the shooting of key scenes proved decisive. His fascination seems genuine; bookshop shelves groan with pamphlets and books reportedly written by him, such as On the Art of Cinema from 1973, on how films can and should support the revolutionary ideas. The entries range from directing and acting, through to make-up and music.

Journalists were shown North Korean filmmakers at work on the lot

Journalists were shown North Korean filmmakers at work on the lot

Cinema in North Korea can only really be understood in relation to the state. The directors and actors I spoke to denied that their work had anything to do with personal expression. An ‘underground’ of unsanctioned locally made films is simply impossible. There are five key agencies responsible for producing films: a documentary studio, a ‘youth-film’ studio, an animation house (the few examples of North Korean anime I saw were surprisingly bold), a body for ‘military’ films, and the studio for feature-film production.

We visited the feature-film studio lot at the end of the programme, a wander through mocked-up Japanese, western and South Korean streets, complete with decadent bars and misspelled posters for western films. There were historical Korean castles and villages, too. That day a scene was being shot for a period film, with women in traditional dress sifting rice. Whether it was for show or not was unclear; the crew seemed quite unconcerned at the guests peering into shot and letting off flash bulbs.

Few films screened in the programme had much to offer western audiences other than historical or exotic interest. It’s doubtful that there are countless treasures in Pyongyang’s archives waiting to be discovered by intrepid cinephiles. Nevertheless these films provide an insight into a country of which most in the west know little, and so deserve to be seen. Paris-based distributor Pretty Pictures released Schoolgirl’s Diary into French cinemas last year, and are planning on releasing it as part of a four-DVD set with The Flower Girl, Bellflower and the two-part The Tale of Chun Hyang. As yet no UK distributor, exhibitor, festival programmer or broadcaster has expressed any interest. Will anyone take up the challenge?

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