SOAS’s second Years of Radical Change conference, held 31 May – 1 June this year, expanded its remit to deal with Korean screen culture in its widest sense. We are used to conferences about South Korean films, but this year TV and video games were among the topics discussed. And on the second day of the conference there was a focus on North Korean cinema, including its attempt to find a wider audience by collaborating with outsiders.
North Korean cinema – setting the scene
Nicolas Levi, of the Polish Academy of Sciences set the scene with his talk “Kim Jong Il: a film director who ran a country.” Kim Junior was appointed head of the Film & Arts division of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party at the tender age of 26, and by the time he was 28 (in 1970) he was making statements such as “The Motion Picture Industry, when dealing with socialist reality, has not yet reached the standard set by our Party.”
Although he is famous in the West for his fondness for movies and movie-making, he was not the only high official who guided the North Korean movie industry: a key figure was Choe Ik-kyu (born in 1933). Choe was involved in the production of Sea of Blood (피바다, 1971), and directed the award-winning Flower Girl in 1972, but after a long career in the industry he was demoted in 2010.
Kim Jong-il was, according to Levi, frustrated with the quality of North Korean film know-how, and one solution was the (alleged) kidnapping of director Shin Sang Ok and actress Choi Eun-hee in 1978 along with some Japanese cultural figures at the same time.
As a footnote, in 1987 North Korea held its first international film festival: the Pyongyang Film Festival of the Non-aligned and Other Developing Countries. This was held every two years from 1990 and was recently rebranded as the Pyongyang International Film Festival, which now has submissions from a broader range of countries (including the UK which presented Bend it Like Beckham in 2004).
North Korean film collaborations from the 1980s onwards
Shin Sang-ok’s sojourn in North Korea was examined further by keynote speaker Johannes Schönherr, author of Trashfilm Roadshows and North Korean Cinema – A History, who reviewed many of the international collaborations since 1985.
Schönherr started by raising the question of whether Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee were really kidnapped, or whether they went to Pyongyang of their own accord – their own story of how they ended up in Pyongyang is not entirely convincing.
When there, Shin had a certain amount of freedom in his film-making locations: An Emissary Unreturned, about the 1907 Hague Peace Conference, was shot in Prague, while two Manchurian films were shot on location in Manchuria, and part of his film adaptation of the Pansori legend Shimcheong-ga was filmed in Bavaria. Another North Korean film of the period (The Separation (1985) – not one of Shin Sang-ok’s) was also filmed in Prague.
When it came to making what was possibly Shin Sang-ok’s most famous film from his North Korean years – Pulgasari – Japanese special effects were used. And inside the Pulgasari rubber suit was the same actor who played Godzilla for the Toho studios in Japan. But to an independent viewer, based solely on a viewing of the dreadful Pulgasari, it is questionable whether Shin’s presence in North Korea did anything to raise standards to an acceptable level (see LKL review here).
Shin’s international collaborative work for Pyongyang ended in 1986 with his (re)defection to the West in Vienna.
Chongryon Film Studio
Early collaborations with Japan involved the Chongryon Film Studio (a studio operated by the Chongryon organisation of North Korea-aligned Koreans in Japan), which resulted in three films:
- Snow Melts in Spring aka Thaw (Rim Chang-bom, Ko Hak-rim, 1985)
- A Silver Hairpin (Ko Hak-rim, Ryo Un-gak, O Hon-rok, Kim Jong-chi, Ko Hwi-ung, 은비녀, 1985) and
- The Mother’s Wish (어머니의 소원, 1987)
Information and synopses of the first two, along with with information about earlier documentaries by the Chongryon studio can be found on the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival website.
Collaborations with the Soviet Union included
- Eternal Comrades in Arms (1985),
- From Spring to Summer (1988) and
- Rescued on the Shore / The Shore of Rescue (1990).
Amazingly, you can watch the latter two with English subtitles, courtesy of the DPRK Video Database here (Spring to Summer) and here (Shore of Rescue), so you can judge for yourself the quality of the films.
But if Kim Jong-il was hoping for a quality product from an Italian collaboration, he was to be sorely disappointed. Ten Zan, the Ultimate Mission (1988), directed by Ferdinando Baldi, was described by Asiaweek as ‘”truly lamentable”. You can read Johannes Schönherr’s extended article about it at Film International.
Japanese co-productions too have not had wide circulation. Last year in London we had the opportunity to see Somi – The Taekwondo Woman (1997) aka Warrior Woman of Koryo (고려녀무사), a co-production which was shot at in North Korea at the height of the famine. Its director, Masao Kobayashi, was also involved with Bird (새, 1992). A review in Eyeforfilm comments that the story of Somi “is very much in line with the pulp B movie martial arts tales of tyranny and revenge,” and perhaps viewers may be grateful that coproductions with Japan soon ceased because of the emergence of the abduction issue.
Collaborations with China included Oriental Gladiator (2005 – a biopic of Rikidozan), and Promise in Pyongyang aka Meet in Pyongyang (2012). The latter movie features footage of the Mass Games, which were re-staged for the filming. It is said that the filming was done in the morning only and that the gymnasts were sent away at lunchtime so that the production team didn’t have to pay for their lunch. You can view a trailer on Simon Fowler’s North Korean Films website here.
Film Business Asia also mentions another Chinese collaboration, If there is no Love aka Necklace in the Time of War.
UK / Belgium
Schönherr finished his talk with the most recent collaboration (Belgium and UK) – one which is doing the rounds of the film festivals: Comrade Kim Goes Flying, which screened at the Busan Film Festival in 2012.
An early collaboration – Moranbong (1958)
But most interesting of all was a very early collaboration introduced by Mark Morris in a talk entitled “Chunhyang at War: Rediscovering the Franco-North Korean film Moranbong (1958).”
This was an extraordinary Belgian-financed film made by French socialist intellectuals and former resistance fighters on a visit to comrades in North Korea in 1958. The scenario was written by Armand Gatti, based on the Chunhyang legend, and starts in Kaesong in 1950 at the beginning of the Korean War (when Kaesong was still on the South side of the border). Our Mongryong character parts from the Chunhyang character not to pursue high office in Seoul but to serve in the Korean People’s Army as an auxiliary, while the Chunghyang character, a traditional musician, makes a life for herself as a singer in Pyongyang. There was a dramatic scene of a performance of Chunhyang itself in the Moranbong Theatre as American bombs rained down on Pyongyang.
Adam Cathcart has written a little about it at Sinomondiale, and if your French is good enough there’s a detailed article on how it came to be made at Theatre et Balagan. It’s a shame that we didn’t have time to see more than a couple of minutes of the film. We’ll have to persuade Morris to come back to SOAS with his DVD.
Traditional tales reinvented in South Korea
Moranbong was not the only Chunhyang-inspired movie to be discussed at the conference. Charles La Shure looked at three recent South Korean films which looked to pre-modern texts for their storylines:
- The Servant, aka Bangjajeon (방자전, Kim Dae-woo, 2010) – based on the Chunhyang story, in which Mongryong’s servant Bangja has designs on Chunhyang, resulting in a love triangle which doesn’t end well for Chunhyang herself
- A Tale Of Legendary Libido, aka Garujigi (가루지기, Shin Han-sol, 2008), based on the Byeon Gang-soe story, a pansori tale which hasn’t made it into the official canon of five (presumably because of the bawdy subject matter). This film is mildly interesting for its reversal of the gender roles, portraying a society in which women have the upper hand. It also focuses more on the male character, Gang-soe, at the expense of the equally insatiable female character Ong-nyeo from the original story. In the end it does not rise much above the series of soft porn adaptations of the same story by Um Jong-sun (엄종선) in the late 1980s.
- Jeon Woochi (전우치Choi Dong-hoon 2009), based on a classical novel, in which the wizard-cum-prankster is brought up to date in modern times.
A round-up of some of the other talks
Other sessions held during the day covered a range of subjects:
- the wonderful world of K-Dramaland (a utopia with its own conventions distinct from what happens in the real world – from Marion Schulze),
- the complexities of subtitling and dubbing (from Sung-Eun Cho),
- the people involved in creating Korea’s computer games (and based on interviews conducted, these are self confessed geeks and misfits who view Korea’s creativity pessimistically and much prefer Japanese manga to Korean manhwa – from Chloe Paberz),
- a look at cinema depicting the colonial period (Jake Bevan and Jeeyoung Shin), and
- an entertaining examination of the portrayal of North Korea in the South Korean panel chat show Now on my way to meet you (이제 만나러 갑니다 – from Christopher Green and (in absentia) Stephen Epstein) which struggles to make up its mind between presenting the defectors as essentially Korean or essentially Other. The format is an adaptation of an earlier TV show A Chat with Beauties (미녀들의 수다, KBS, 2006-2010) in which a (male) Korean host would talk with good-looking foreign females.
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All in all, a stimulating and very full couple of days (though LKL could only attend the second day). There was so much content that at one point delegates had to choose between two sessions. One had to feel sorry for Taey Iohe and Hyun Bang Shin who were competing against a panel session on North Korean cinema. If we’d had a synopsis of their session, which was entitled City, Aesthetics of Resistance and Screen Media in South Korea maybe more of us would have chosen them – but as is often the case when it comes to the Korean peninsula, the North is sadly more of a draw.
Thanks to Dr Andrew David Jackson for organising the event, and to the sponsors.