The Great North Korean Picture Show – screening in Bermondsey

An interesting documentary coming in Bermondsey later this month:

The Great North Korean Picture Show (2012)

Great North Korean Picture Show posterA Documentary Feature Film by Lynn Lee & James Leong
Korean/English with English Subtitles, 93 MIN

26 October 2013, 1.40 PM

Shortwave Cinema | 10 Bermondsey Square | London SE1 3UN | TEL: 020 7357 6845

Welcome to Hollywood, Kim Jong Il-style.

North Korea’s film industry is a vital tool in the regime’s vast propaganda machinery. Now, for the first time ever, foreign filmmakers have been allowed into the country’s only film school – an elite institution where young talents are trained to create works that will not only entertain, but help shape the psyche of an entire nation.


Kim Un Bom and Ri Yun Mi are two aspiring actors handpicked to become future movie stars. Idealistic and ambitious, they have huge dreams. Their lives are a reflection of how the best and brightest live in the world’s most secretive state.

Over at the North Korean Film Studio, Director Pyo Hang is racing to complete the country’s latest blockbuster, a period drama featuring a cast of hundreds. It’s a highly stressful environment and Pyo has his work cut out – he must not only rally his cast and crew, he must deliver a masterpiece that will please his leaders.

Still from The Great North Korean Picture Show


Lynn Lee and James Leong have spent the last decade telling stories across Asia. Passabe, their first feature documentary was picked for a grant from the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund. It was acquired by French/German channel, ARTE and has also screened at film festivals across the world. Passabe was theatrically released in Singapore in August 2006. James and Lynn completed two films in 2006 and 2007 – Homeless FC, which won the top prize at the Chinese Documentary Festival in 2007 and Aki Ra’s Boys, which received the Encyclopedia Award at the Almaty International Film Festival. James and Lynn also have extensive TV experience and have produced and directed numerous television documentaries.


In 2008, our documentary, ‘Aki Ra’s Boys’ was invited to the Pyongyang International Film Festival. There, we got a glimpse of a film industry like no other. The North Korean movie stars and directors we met spoke about serving their country and crafting messages that would glorify their leaders. They told us about their roles as creators of propaganda, and about their General, Kim Jong Il – genius of film, theatre and music.

We were intrigued and wanted to find out more. But we were not interested in shooting on the sly. We wanted access – proper access – that would allow us to interact with our subjects openly and candidly, over an extended period of time. We wanted to meet the people behind the propaganda, understand their motivations and get to know their personal stories.

It took us more than half a year to secure this access and when permission was finally granted, we were told we had to agree to a few rules. Some were not easy to swallow and we had to think hard about them. Should we say yes and risk being accused of making a film that was less than objective, or decline and have the door close on us?

In the end, we decided to go for it. Over a year, we made four trips to Pyongyang. They were all logistically difficult to arrange. It was hard to know if a visit would be our last. Still, things got easier with time. Our subjects became less reserved, our guides, more flexible. We learnt that it was important to keep an open mind, to demonstrate that we respected our hosts and to let them show us, rather than to demand to be shown. The more we cooperated, the more we got to see and film.

Some people have suggested that our subjects were merely putting on an act. Maybe they were told to be on their best behavior, but we hope that by being patient, by stepping back, and by being as unobtrusive as possible, we were able to capture moments when they were their genuine, unadulterated selves.

What is the truth? What is real? All we can say is we opened a door, walked in, and observed. Did we succeed? The audience will just have to watch and decide.

Here’s a Q&A from a recent screening, which gives a few additional insights.


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