When he died in December 2011, Kim Jong Il left behind more than a dynastic regime and a closet full of drab pantsuits. Jong Il, who ruled the hermetic North Korea from his father Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 until his own passing 17 years later, was a noted cinephile and something of a mogul. Films and film theory were hobbies of his, and as the whims of dictators tend to harden into real-world realities, Jong Il made the leap few less-connected dilettantes ever do. He got movies made—even if he apparently had to kidnap a great director to shoot them.
These films have rarely been screened outside North Korea. But thanks to bootleggers and YouTube, at least three are now readily available for your viewing.
Jong Il’s collection of some 20,000 movies on VHS and DVD reveal something of Dear Leader’s eclectic tastes: the Rambo and James Bond franchises, anything starring Elizabeth Taylor or Elvis, and an entirely unreasonable amount of porn. His 1973 book, On the Art of the Cinema, shows both a surprising grasp of filmmaking and a characteristically North Korean emphasis on the medium’s power as a means of evincing state-sanctioned ideals.
In a 1970 talk to screenwriters and directors, Jong Il stated that, “The motion picture industry, when dealing with socialist reality, has not yet reached the standard set by our Party.” Already a man of many hats—heir to his father’s throne, overseer of the Propaganda and Agitation Department—he had recently added one more: producer. Acting as the invisible hand in his nation’s film industry for the latter half of his life, Jong Il gave what the Korean Film Studio calls “on-the-spot guidance” to a reported 11,890 projects. First of these was the four-hour long Sea of Blood, one of many North Korean films still almost entirely unseen outside its homeland; it was followed by The Flower Girl in 1972. Both were adapted from one of the Five Great Revolutionary Operas said to have been written by Kim Il Sung himself.
The story of a young girl who handpicks and sells flowers from a mountain in order to buy medicine for her ailing mother, Flower Girl puts into practice Jong Il’s theory that “films should contain musical masterpieces.” The movie is distinguished by the genuinely beautiful songs sung by star Hong Yong Hee, who once likened Jong Il’s on-set presence to that of “a kind father.” Throughout the 1930s-set period piece, Yong Hee’s character—who’s at the mercy of cruel, iron-fisted landlords in league with Japanese occupiers—rarely has occasion to do more than toil. At the end of it all, her brother bemoans the tragedy of his “ruined nation” and calls on his fellow villagers to “restore our country and build a new society without landlords or capitalists.” Then they all agree to further the cause of Kim Il Sung’s just-arrived Revolutionary Army and presumably live happily ever after.
The lyrics—previously flora-centric—become more political in the closing song: “Under the benevolent sun shining bright/Red flowers of revolution bloom up.” By necessity, Il-sung’s cinematic portrayal has always been that of a savior who ushered in a wondrous new world after freeing his country from the misery wrought by Japan’s decades-long occupation. Thus all films set prior to his ascendancy depict a rudderless nation in the throes of despondency. This message can be likened to the nation’s creation myth. For its efforts, Flower Girl was awarded a Special Prize at Czechoslovakia’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Shortly after Flower Girl (which you can find on YouTube) Jong Il penned On the Art of the Cinema. What happened over the next few years depends on whose story you believe, but the most widely accepted narrative is that in 1978, he kidnapped Shin Sang-ok—often regarded as “the Orson Welles of South Korea.” Sang-ok, along with his wife, was taken to the North in 1978, though it wasn’t until 1983 that he shocked the world by putting the dictator-to-be’s aesthetic theories into practice in a movie called An Emissary of No Return. (Comments Sang-ok made about working in the North voluntarily while premiering the film at Karlovy Vary—where he was awarded the Best Director prize and might have been speaking under duress—have led some to doubt his later claims that he was essentially a hostage.) Prior to his escape three years later, he directed six other movies and produced another 13.
Far and away the best-known work in either collaborator’s filmography is Pulgasari, a Godzilla ripoff made in 1985 that’s available on YouTube and bootleg VHS. In addition to its obvious parallels to the God of Monsters, the eponymous reptile is based on a North Korean folkloric creature from the 14th century that subsists entirely on a diet of steel. Jong Il and Sang-ok’s dedication to making this new film as similar to the Japanese original as possible was extensive: Sang-ok flew in special effects master Teruyoshi Nakano and other workers from Toho, the studio that produced the 1954 Godzilla, and Kenpachiro Satsuma (who donned the Godzilla suit from 1984 to 1995) played Pulgasari. Sang-ok’s immediate task may have been to helm a movie that differed from the usual agitprop, but the end-goal of his presence was to the to alter the country’s approach to moviemaking for the better.
Pulgasari‘s anticapitalist thrust warns against the dangers of unchecked industry. Embodying this danger is the monster Pulgasari, whose appetite for steel is literally insatiable. “Just exercise a little self-control,” a farmer’s daughter tells him near the end, and diligent North Koreans are meant to absorb the message as well. This apparently big-budget film hews as closely as possible to the insistence laid out in Jong Il’s book that ideology must always trump creative concerns.
As with a great many North Korean movies, the ostensible focus of both Flower Girl and Pulgasari is largely superseded by depictions of the peasantry going about their noble business, with the latter featuring as many scenes of intense battles as of farmers and workers nobly plying their trades. Jong Il believed fervently that fantastical stories must be rooted in the everyday, that “the director cannot depict life truthfully if he produces an absurd work which is divorced from life.”
One of Jong Il’s final producer credits was for The Schoolgirl’s Diary, which premiered at the 2006 Pyongyang International Film Festival and was released in France the following year. Neither it nor any other work with which he was involved has ever come close to matching the notoriety of Pulgasari—for better or for worse.