North Korean Feature Film Gets International Exposure

2006-10-30
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Kim Jong Il. Photo: AFP via KCNA News Agency

SEOUL—Weeks after its nuclear test provoked an international outcry, North Korea’s Stalinist regime has secured unprecedented international distribution for a homegrown feature film said to have involved extensive consultation by reclusive leader Kim Jong Il.

James Velaise, president the Paris-based film distributor Pretty Pictures, told RFA’s Korean service he hopes to secure “The School Girl’s Diary” a spot at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2007. He saw the film, which follows the life of an ordinary North Korean school girl, at the Pyongyang Film Festival in September.

“The movie is a wonderful slice of everyday life in Pyongyang,” Velaise said.“I saw the film, and I thought that it was genuinely good and well-made, nothing like some previous North Korean films, as it didn’t have a propaganda element attached…I found it particularly refreshing, and since my company had successfully distributed many South Korean movies in France, I thought, ‘Well, let’s give a shot to a North Korean picture this time.’”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il—so enamored of the cinema that he once kidnapped a South Korean actress and her director husband to make propaganda films—is said to have advised extensively on the script.

The final cut, however, differs dramatically from North Korean propaganda classics such as “Sea of Blood,” “Flames Spreading Over the Land,” “The Flower Girl,” “Fate of a Self-defence Corps Member,” “A Family of Workers,” and “The Path to Awakening.”

The movie is a wonderful slice of everyday life in Pyongyang.

A review in Variety described the film as the journey of a “self-absorbed teen [who] learns to respect her parents’ hard work and devotion… [It] replicates a slick snapshot of contemporary life in the hermit state. Though its politics are different, the picture has the feel of a South Korean or Taiwanese picture of the ‘70s, with vivid colors, students having musical parties during the winter, and an overall atmosphere of pulling through together.”

Box-office appeal

Velaise described the film as a “huge box-office success in North Korea,” citing North Korean estimates that it sold 8 million tickets.

This, he said, “is quite remarkable in a country of 23 million. One can’t verify this information, but since they made only two movies last year, and people do go a lot to the movie theater in North Korea, and since they don’t show any foreign movies, maybe it is true, maybe the movie did indeed sell 8 million tickets.”

If that claim is true, and the film was South Korean, “The School Girl’s Diary” would rank sixth among the South's all-time box office records, behind blockbusters “The Host” (2006), “The King and the Clown” (2005), “Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War” (2004), “Silmido” (2003), and “Friend” (2003), but ahead of “Shiri” (1999) and “JSA-Joint Security Area” (2000).

“One interesting fact about distribution in France is that the French are extremely curious about anything new. Most movies are released in Paris, New York, or London. Since, as far as I know, there has never been a North Korean movie released in France or anywhere else in the West, apart from a few festivals here and there, I think France is the perfect country to give it a try.”

“We are all very excited, and I am fairly optimistic that ‘The School Girl’s Diary’ will be shown at the Cannes Festival in May, which is the perfect launching pad for any new release,” Velaise said.

Kim Jong Il’s passion

Kim Jong Il is well known as a passionate film aficionado, taking the extraordinary step of kidnapping a favorite South Korean director, Shin Sang-ok, in 1978. Shin ultimately escaped in the mid-1980s after making, among other films, the North Korean cult classic “Pulgasari,” in which a massive lizard joins forces with oppressed peasants to fight cruel landlords.

In recent years our film art has created an unprecedented sensation in the world’s filmdom...The revolutionary people of the world are unstinting in their praise...

Kim’s 1973 monograph On the Art of Cinema , dictates the pro-communist principles according to which all North Korean films are produced, and Kim is believed to own a library of at least 15,000 films from all over the world.

So well known is Kim’s passion for the cinema that one U.S. senator visited North Korea in the 1990s carrying a suitcase filled with American Westerns in hope of convincing Kim to meet with him. It didn’t work.

Celebrated industry

North Korean cinema has long served as a propaganda tool, although it turned less ideological in the 1980s with productions based on the folktale Chunhyang-Jon and the heroic exploits of legendary outlaw Hong Kil Dong. It is, however, a point of unique pride so far as North Korean apparatchiks are concerned.

“In recent years our film art has created an unprecedented sensation in the world’s filmdom,” the official Korean Review has written “The revolutionary people of the world are unstinting in their praise of this feature film and other monumental works, calling them ‘first-class films by international standards,’ ‘the most wonderful movies ever produced’ and ‘immortal revolutionary and popular films.’”

Kim Jong Il ‘deeply involved’

The South Korean news agency Yonhap described Kim Jong Il as “deeply involved in production” of "The School Girl's Diary."

The Kim regime, the agency said, is hoping the film will appeal to younger audiences as the country faces a massive generational shift and enormous economic and diplomatic problems.

“From the viewpoint of the North Korean establishment, the movie is instrumental in mitigating possible side effects of the inescapable generational change and ensuring that the new generation—tempted by a more materialistic and utilitarian mentality—follow in the footsteps of the older generation, loyal to the current regime and its official ideology,” it said.

The U.N. Security Council this month unanimously approved sanctions banning North Korean trade in materials linked to its deadly weapons program, along with luxury goods favored by the elite. Those sanctions followed North Korea’s Oct. 9 nuclear test, rendering the country, in prolonged economic collapse, more cut off from the rest of the world than at any time in history.

Original reporting by Jinhee L. Bonny for RFA’s Korean service. Korean Service director: Jaehoon Ahn. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu and written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

Original reporting in Korean

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