Lenin’s legendary formula — «for us, of all the arts, cinema and circus are the most importan» — is absolutely true for North Korea. Circus performances and movies are the basic elements of Korean mass-culture, and circus stars (mostly female trapeze acrobats) continue their careers in cinema. Both jobs are perfectly traditional: they practice age-old art based on interpretation (of no matter what, from classical images to editorials).
Actually, the basic treatise on theory and practice of filmmaking — the book of comrade Kim Jong-il On The Art of Cinema — is nothing but a political message in form of professional advice on editing or make-up. Movies filmed according to these principles are legitimate heirs of Stalinist style (especially its later, scanty period).
The characters of these films are mere elements of tableaux vivants illustrating theses of the Party and national development. Each of them has a voice which is used by the real author — the Party. However, though its voice is quite weighty, this politically filmed cinema is not really political, it’s rather post-political, compared to the Stalin-era socialist realism. The cinema of DPRK is the cinema of a dream incarnate, even more passionate and euphoric than Aleksandrov’s musical comedies, and the objects of this cinema are not phenomena but ideas.
The period from mid-1960s to mid-1980s was the golden age of North Korean cinema. It was the time when all the filmmaking in the country was under the guiding hand of Kim Jong-il. Having produced two pictures recognized in DPRK as «immortal classic» — The Sea of Blood (1968) and The Flower Girl (1972) — the Dear Leader retired from the immediate management of filmmaking to concentrate on strategy and theory.
In 1978, for the sake of modernization of film production, DPRK invited (or abducted) Shin Sang-ok, a disgraced superstar of South Korean cinema. Before his escape in 1986 he directed half a dozen of hits, including the North Korean version of Godzilla — Pulgasari (1985), and supervised another dozen.
Kor-Kor was intended to invite Russian audience to view the life in DPRK from two aspects. The first section of the program includes documentaries about DPRK filmed by Western filmmakers. The second section features films from DPRK. Different genres, different times — from a black-and-white sports parable of 1970s to a Sirkian-coloured tragedy of an architect, unable to return to his native village. Shown together they will give Russian viewers the idea of the official side of life in DPRK — a Gesamtkunstwerk that cannot be divided into distinct form of art.
Vasily Koretsky, film critic editor of cinema division for Ńolta.ru
Once engineer Woon Bong left village for the city, he betrayed his love to his girlfriend, Jin Song Rim, and to his birthplace, a little mountain village Pyokgye-ri. And now, 27 years later, weary and repentant he returns to his home village to find it flourishing. He can’t bring himself to meet his fellow villagers, so he sends his son to redeem his fault and become a worthy member of the agricultural community. The love-story of Bong’s son and a beautiful daughter of the chairman of the collective farm intertwines with the love story of Bong and Song Rim that was as romantic but not as happy as his son’s.
A typical example of the «grand style» developed by the Dear Leader comrade Kim Jong-il, A Broad Bellflower won the First Pyongyang International Film Festival. It was filmed when Shin Sang-ok, famous South Korean director who defected — or was kidnapped — to Pyongyang, set the trend in North Korean cinema with his action blockbusters. Nevertheless, Kyun Soon Jo’s film doesn’t show any influence of the «bourgeois» genres.
A Broad Bellflower was shown in cinemas right after Shin Sang-ok’s escape to America, and celebrated the return of North Korean cinema to the revolutionary lyricism of the old school after three years of flirting with Hollywood.
Arirang festival is the main mass cultural event in DPRK. Since 2002, this grandiose days-long gymnastics and artistic show dedicated to the history of the country has been held almost annually in the Rungnado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang. The participants of Arirang (about a hundred thousand people) never know for sure if the next year’s festival is going to happen, but they are always ready, constantly training in the streets of the capital. Schoolgirls Park Hyun Sang and Kim Seong Yoon are regular participants of this mass gymnastics games. They have a dream — to perform in front of the Dear Leader comrade Kim Jong-il. But besides their dream they have more than enough to care — family, workouts, holidays.
Daniel Gordon is the first of Western journalists who managed to get backstage of Arirang practically right from the birth of the event, and to watch the life of its performers — ordinary children who don’t differ much from their peers, but who live in a country so much different from other countries. The girls’ families are also in picture. They belong to different social groups (one girl’s father is a physicist, the other is a worker) but their everyday life is akin. Both families like long walks by the river and singing to a guitar, both are curious to know what the world outside is like, and both are storing water in their bathrooms. Both families wish their children well and both hate American imperialism.
The first Gordon’s trip to DPRK was back in 2002 to film a documentary about seven players of the DPRK national football team, the one that beat Italy in 1966. The film became so popular in North Korea that the authorities allowed him to do an unbelievable thing: to film a documentary about an American defector Joseph Dresnok who has lived in DPRK since 1962, is married to a Korean woman and teaches English in Pyongyang University. Daniel Gordon has no doubts that «the picture of the Korean society that he shows in the film is true and it agrees with the real state of things in Pyongyang».
After reading Kim Jong-il’s book On the Art of Cinema and Directing Australian filmmaker Anna Brîinowsky decided that she should go herself to DPRK to study how to transform creative process into the revolutionary one. She met the leading figures of North Korean cinema (including Kim Jong-il’s favourite actress and children of defector Joseph Dresnok who played numerous American villians), grasped the basic principles of revolutionary creativity and returned to Sydney to film the Gardener, a genuine juche drama based on the protests against drill tower right in the city park next to her house.
Anna Brîinowsky is a leading Australian documentary maker. She has released four documentaries including a film on Japanese subculture (Hell Bento) and a super hit about a literary fraud Norma Khouri (Forbidden Lie$).
Aim High in Ńreation proved to be not only an act of social activism, directed against transnational companies poisoning Australian nature with by-products of gas extraction (a story much more forceful than Erin Brockovich). It’s also the story of a person from the capitalist world who gets to know the country labeled by the West as the «realm of evil» — and finds it a realm of joy. As Brîinowsky herself asserted, she just wanted to «tell the story of another North Korea, the one with ordinary people leading ordinary life in contrast to the horror presented by CNN or Fox. People that we met were really happy. They are content with simple pleasures: trips to the coutry, barbecue, conversations, singing to a guitar, political jokes, bawdy joke».
In Son, a young forward of Pyongyang’s Taesongsan football team is discredited — he didn’t score a single goal in his first game. Now he is making desperate efforts to improve and to finally leave the bench. Inspired by his sister, successful both in her job at the factory and in amateur performances, he triples his efforts and trains every minute he has and everywhere he can — even at night, in the forest, under the rain and by moonlight. His coach, inspired in turn by In Son’s persistence and by the ideas of comrade Kim Il Sung, introduces a new super-intensive training scheme. Those of little faith consider his plan unrealistic, however the next match proves the efficiency of the revolutionary principle «Working harder!»
The film is an echo of the unprecedented performance of DPRK national team at 1966 World Cup (Koreans thrashed Italians in the first round 3:1). Centre Forward was filmed at the direct behest of comrade Kim Jong-Il, and the technical advisor for the film was one of the members of that legendary team. Spectacular night trainings shown in the picture are not fictional, it was a routine practice for footballers of that time.
The film was restored by the Beijing company Koryo Tours engaged in tourist business and film production in North Korea. The co-founder of the company, Nicholas Bonner, is a co-producer for Daniel Gordon and Ann Broinovski, and also the producer and co-director of the first co-production of Belgium, UK, and DPRK — romantic comedy Ńomrade Kim Goes Flying.