Three Movies From the North Korean Canon Complicate Misconceptions

Spectacle Theater’s ‘Il-Matic for the People’ program ventures into the tenuous boundaries between politics and art


On April 27, the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit concluded with the landmark statement that there will be “no more war on the Korean Peninsula.” My loved ones and I spent our first days of this “new era of peace” in a disoriented state, overjoyed but still reeling from decades of violence, and unable to shrug off our suspicions of a televised affair. An older family member dismissed the event, claiming, “They know we are watching.” There is sufficient reason for the people’s scrutiny of the screen: Since the division of Korea by America and the Soviet Union in 1945, filmed propaganda has served as a major weapon in the adversarial relationship between North and South. As a cultural artifact, North Korean Communist agitprop attracts a disproportionate amount of notoriety compared to its South Korean capitalist counterparts. Responses to North Korean movies vary from crude pleasure to jingoistic pity, but all hinge upon a stereotype of North Koreans as intellectually primitive and artistically illiterate. A YouTube comment posted beneath Jung Gi-Mo and Kim Eung-Suk’s Order No. 27 (1986) asks, “Did they really have cinema in North Korea?”

The sensationalized fantasy of North Korea’s “propaganda machine” imagines that its filmmakers are passive laborers in a factory, churning out shoddy products for a brainwashed audience. On the contrary, the films of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) are frequently rich with poetic detail and relentlessly melodramatic. Prior to his rise to leadership, Kim Jong-Il — in those years the director of North Korea’s Motion Picture and Arts Division — gained prominence as a leading film critic. His foremost publication is the treatise On the Art of the Cinema (1973), which includes his seminal theory of the “seed,” or “the basis which blends the ideological and artistic qualities of a literary work [and can] contribute effectively to advancing our revolution and construction.” Here, ideology strictly refers to juche, a principle of self-reliance guided by — according to Dong-Hoon Kim — revisionist Marxism, the personality cult, and ethnic nationalism. Kim Jong-Il’s “seed theory” tasked artists with mastering a balancing act, but the text’s tenuous boundaries between politics and art unintentionally made room for creative reinterpretation. This month, Spectacle Theater’s series “Il-Matic for the People: North Korean Cinema” screens three films — Pak Chang-song and Kim Kil-in’s Centre Forward (1978); Shin Sang-ok’s Pulgasari (1985); and Urban Girl Comes to Get Married (1993), directed by students of Pyongyang’s University of Cinematic and Dramatic Arts — that present a counternarrative to the misconceptions of North Korean cinema, each interweaving intricacies throughout what, at first glance, appear to be narratives of prosaic uniformity.

North Korea’s first soccer movie, Centre Forward delivers the précis of its “seed” in a striking opening song: “We are the sportspersons of the leader, let us demonstrate wisdom and vigor.” The eponymous player is In Son, whose clumsiness so humiliates his team that the coach forcibly implements an extremely rigorous training regimen. In sporadic doses, co-director Pak punctuates his repetitive images of breathless athleticism — brisk tracking shots across fields and sporadic zooms into sweaty faces — with impassioned conversations regarding the ethics of leadership. The naive In Son argues that responsibility lies in the leader’s hands (“Demand more from us,” he tells his coach), while an older player, Chol Gyu, accuses the coach of abusing his authority. In and of themselves, these scenes — accompanied by melodramatic strings — offer little clarity to the questions Pak raises. Arguments conclude with vague aphorisms and weepy looks of contemplation, as if the athletes have forgotten the purpose of the game beyond its rules. But despite its didactic moments, Centre Forward contains a degree of nuance typically unseen in screen depictions of North Koreans. These characters may share the same goal — in the words of the coach, “sports […] carry a duty to bring honor to our motherland” — but they do not unanimously agree on or uniformly respond to the constraints of their circumstances.

Though successful at the box office, Centre Forward failed to impress Kim Jong-Il, who became increasingly frustrated with the quality of North Korean movies. That same year of 1978, Kim’s desire for an industry-wide reinvention led to the abduction of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee — who passed away last month — and her ex-husband, the prolific auteur Shin Sang-ok. For eight years, Shin was instructed to direct films that elevated North Korea’s international reputation as a filmmaking nation. Pulgasari (1985) — left incomplete by Shin and finished by Chong Gon Jo — is considered the best-known North Korean film of all time. Though inspired by the Godzilla franchise, the film adheres to juche’s glorification of Korean history by incorporating the legend of the pulgasari, a chimera that manifests from rice and eats iron. Similar in function rather than appearance, Shin’s reptilian pulgasari rescues a rural village by eating the weapons of an oppressive army. It soon becomes the figurehead of their resistance, towering over specks of soldiers in red, green, and blue. But when the voracious beast — nicknamed “little one” and “cutie” by the villagers — develops an appetite for farming tools, the people must tragically destroy their precious friend. An undercurrent of provocation belies the offbeat and perversely funny Pulgasari, stemming from its indeterminate “seed”: Is the pulgasari a freedom fighter turned despot, an iconoclast seeking to destroy relics of Korean feudalism, or a messenger sent to teach Koreans a lesson about class consciousness and false idols?

The only student film of the idiosyncratic series, Urban Girl Comes to Get Married (1993) is directed by Chong Yun and the Youth Creative Group of Pyongyang’s University of Cinematic and Dramatic Arts. Produced for the purpose of attracting younger audiences, Urban Girl zeroes in on the universal process and experience of the crush. Ri Hyang, a fashion designer at a clothing factory, visits the countryside for a service trip and encounters Song Sik, a handsome duck farmer. Their shy flirtation evolves into genuine infatuation, but Ri Hyang’s impending return to the factory threatens to put out the flame altogether. Kim’s treatise discourages filmmakers from distorting “the flow of life” through editing. The Youth Creative Group manipulates this rule with feverish flashbacks, freeze-frames, and zooms set to lively pop music, including the film’s theme song, “Urban Girl Comes to Get Married” (an immense hit in both North and South Korea). Though Spectacle’s selections do not venture into contemporary North Korean cinema — it is still unknown whether Kim Jong-Un has inherited his father’s position as North Korea’s supreme cinephile — Urban Girl’s final scene offers a premonition of one possible future. Now married, Song Sik and Ri Hyang stand in a lush cornfield as the camera pans away and into rustling gold crops, at once an idealized promise of prosperity and a united step into the precarious unknown.

‘Il-Matic for the People: North Korean Cinema’
Spectacle Theater
Through May 31


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