At the movies in North Korea: love, drama, and class warfare
The 20th annual Pyongyang International Film Festival reflects 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong Il's love of movies.
Pyongyang, North Korea — In the days when Great Leader Kim Il Sung was running the country, son Kim Jong Il was at his happiest visiting the sets and stages of the film studio on the edge of the capital.
A guide imparts this glimpse into good times enjoyed by the heir before his father died in 1994, leaving the son the responsibility for near-total power that left little time for movies.
Nonetheless, the tradition lives on. The studio here churns out 20 movies a year, and this month the government held its 20th annual Pyongyang International Film Festival: nearly two week of domestic and foreign movies mostly with themes reflecting class differences or the victory of socialist or communist forces.
"General Kim Jong Il visited the film studios over 500 times," says Chae Han Yul, showing visitors up and down streets lined with sets reminiscent of ancient villages, a European town, a South Korean nightclub district, and a Japanese street in the days when Japan ruled Korea.
"He personally had directors make such excellent films," says Mr. Chae, a senior staff member.
Mr. Kim's career as a filmmaker reached a pinnacle in the 1970s and '80s, when he routinely dictated themes and topics, selected casts as well as directors, and, quite often, assumed the role of director. "He believed in film to motivate the people," says a guide. "They were an important mass medium."
It's not clear when Kim, said to have suffered a stroke and to be preoccupied with concerns ranging from the economy to his country's nuclear program, last visited the studios. But he's said to have a library of 15,000 to 20,000 films and over the years has viewed American and European films unavailable for North Koreans outside his own most privileged inner circle.
The opening film this year was a story of a family divided by poverty, made by a Chinese studio and set in the city of Dalian. The film, "A Tender Feeling," has a happy ending of a family reunited by love, but could be interpreted as a message of the suffering of millions of families separated by the Korean War and thousands more divided by escape to China in search of food and work.
"That film is a classic," says Nick Bonner, a travel agent, producer, and one of the organizers of the festival, based in Beijing. "It shows the evils of capitalism and class warfare," the message that Kim wants his people to absorb.
The award for best film went to another Chinese film with an even stronger message, The Assembly, about Communist forces in China before their victory on the mainland on Oct. 1, 1949.
The festival, with Kim's blessing, has evolved to provide a window into other countries and cultures that are normally closed to North Korean eyes, even though the films have themes acceptable to authorities. The British film "The Atonement" was among a number of other films that also won kudos.
"They're keen on showing international films," says Mr. Bonner. "This year 120,000 tickets were on sale in different stalls in Pyongyang. They're popular films everyone wants tickets for."
Many people waited in long lines to buy tickets, Bonner says, though for most North Koreans the price of five won – a few US cents – is prohibitive, the equivalent of a month's pay.
All of the locally produced films reflect class struggle along with triumphs over foreigners, notably the Americans and Japanese, and images of the decadence in South Korea.
The sets here lend themselves to socialist themes. An entire street is lined with buildings in designs from the 1920s and '30s, when Koreans were under Japanese rule. The interior of one Japanese home is meant to show the good life the Japanese were leading in their own colonial enclave compared with the poverty of Koreans. In a "neighborhood" built to show the lascivious lifestyles of South Koreans living near US military bases, ads feature old American films and massage parlors.
"Kim Jong Il said we must use all these buildings to make films," says Chae. "We need realism."