By Pioneer Media Co-Founder Justin Martell
w/ Austin Jennings
Part 3 here.
“THE DIRECTOR IS THE COMMANDER OF THE CREATIVE GROUP.”– KIM JONG IL, ON THE ART OF CINEMA, 1973
Where to start? Around 100 North Korean titles have been made available with English subtitles. These include obvious choices such as The Flower Girl and Hong Kil Dong, while other famous and seminal titles remain unavailable, such as Sea of Blood and Star of Korea. Pulgasari and other films by Shin Sang Ok were removed from the DPRK’s film library following his 1986 defection; a travesty considering his films feature some of North Korea’s most ambitious filmmaking.
Below are five titles which are both entertaining in a Western sense, but also provide an overview of North Korean cinema’s favorite idealogical themes. These titles are mostly available on YouTube with English Subtitles and also frequently found on DVD (usually for about 5 Euro each) in souvenir shops frequented on any of YPT’s North Korea tours.
#5 The Flower Girl
1972, Dirs. Choe Ik Gyu and Pak Hak
Synopsis from Korean Film Art:
With little sister, Sun Hui, who got blind by the cruelty of the landlady, Kkotpun sells flowers to pay for the medicine of her mother who has fallen sick from slavery as landlord Pae’s servant. In spite of her devotion, her mother dies and Kkotpun sets out on a long journey to see her brother, who was unjustly thrown into prison years before. When she hears of her brothers death from a jailor, she attempts her own life, but thinking of her blind sister, she comes back home. Hearing her sister was lured away by the landlord, she protests against the landlord. But she is severely beaten and locked in a store. On the other hand, her brother Chol Ryong who joined the Korean Revolutionary Army after his escape from the prison, stops over at a mountain hut near the village. There he finds Sun Hui who was was rescued from death by the owner of the hut. He encourages the villagers to finish off the landlord and his minions and saves his sister Kkotpun. Kkotpun follows her brother to join the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle led by Kim Il Sung.
The Flower Girl is by far the most famous North Korean Film and regarded by the state as an Immortal Classic. The film is based on the “revolutionary opera,” allegedly written by Kim Il Sung when he was imprisoned by the Japanese for his revolutionary activities. In Kim Il Sung’s memoirs, With the Century, he noted that the play was first performed by Koreans in Jilin province on the 13th anniversary of the October Revolution. And, according to official lore, the play was not performed until it was “improved and adapted for film, and re-written as a novel under the guidance of” Kim Jong Il.
The film is the quintessential example, as pure a propaganda film as one could hope to see. Production began in April, 1972, and the film was co-directed by Choe Ik Gyu and Pak Hak. Choe had been entrusted by Kim Jong Il with the 1968 film adaptation of another Immortal Classic and revolutionary opera, Sea of Blood. Pak Hak, had starred in 1953’s Scouts, a war film shot during the Korean War, and would go on to direct 1974’s The Fate of Kum Hui and Un Hui.
The film was shot almost entirely on studio sets and a impressively convincing backlot dressed as Korea under Japanese occupation. The film follows a penniless flower girl who has her spirit stomped time and again by the cartoonishly malevolent Japanese, who let her family rot to death under the weight of extreme poverty. The film is a steady descent into unending pity, until her brother (representing Kim Il Sung’s invincible and noble Revolutionary Army) appears on the scene to overthrow the landlord at the center of her misery.
What’s interesting about The Flower Girl, and the many North Korean films produced in this style, is the almost total absence of the formal flourishes that the European and American films had introduced to the medium by the 1970s following the French New Wave. There is little in the way of style or embellishment to underscore dramatic beats, giving the film a straightforward, workmanship quality. The blocking of actors is staged with an artificial rigidity, often leaving key faces out of view at moments where Western audiences are accustomed to expect a reverse shot or close up. Many scenes are shot in a artlessly framed wide and stay there, regardless of the dramatic value of what is being said.
Nevertheless, the film has several worthwhile images with an undeniable gauzy and ethereal quality, used to especially flattering effect in the opening as our protagonist gathers flowers to sell on the streets once the market opens. At its most attractive moments, the film feels as if it were released closer to the period it portrays, looking more like a product of the early technicolor days of Hollywood instead of the 1970s. Artistic direction aside, this is likely the product of older, outmoded lenses and equipment used, as well as the filmmakers holding tightly to a rudimentary emulation of Western and Soviet films they admired without understanding the visual logic underpinning them.
One could watch The Flower Girl and wonder if the filmmakers know the power of a close up, or what, if anything, a creeping camera move communicates to the subconscious of the audience – or if they just see these choices as interchangeable units of communication, each as effective as any other. Unlike Western cinema which had been sharpened for decades under a traditional studio system and had begun to break free of those traditions into experimental pop territory by the 1960s, The Flower Girl represents a much earlier step in a nation’s love affair with the movie camera.
The Flower Girl played at a number of Eastern Bloc festivals and became the first international award-winning North Korean film when it won a Jury Prize at the 1972 Karlovy International Film Festival in Czechoslovakia. The film’s international recognition must have lead to a boastful article in a 1974 Korean Review which claimed: “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 of this feature film and other monumental works, calling them ‘the first-class films by international standards’, ‘the most wonderful movies ever produced’ and ‘immortal revolutionary and popular films’.”
The movie was also released in China at the outset of the Cultural Revolution. It was apparently so popular that some Chinese cinemas introduced 24 hour programming for the movie. One North Korean guide told me that Chinese tourists still ask about the film. In 2009, actress Hong Yong Hee, who portrayed Kkotpun, received Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao when he arrived on a state visit to the DPRK.
Images of Kkot Bun can be found sprinkled throughout North Korean culture, most notably on the one Won note (no longer in circulation following several rounds of currency reforms) as well as on a huge mural at the entrance of the Pyongyang Grand Theatre. According to North Korea state media, the play has been performed over 1,400 times in 40 countries. In South Korea, the film was banned as communist propaganda until 1998.
Watch The Flower Girl online for free with English subtitles HERE.
#4 The Emissary Unreturned
Dir. Choi Eun Hee and Shin Sang Ok, 1984
No Korean synopsis available.
In the late 1970s, Kim Jong Il, frustrated by stagnation in North Korea’s film industry, arranged an elaborate ruse to kidnap Shin Sang Ok, once one of South Korea’s most famous directors, and his ex-wife Choi Eun Hee, once one of South Korea’s most famous actresses. When satisfied with the couple’s ideological education, the Dear Leader gave them carte blanche and a blank check to bring prestige and international recognition to North Korean cinema. After delivering several successful films, the Dear Leader was so impressed that he spared no expense for Shin’s films. He once famously delivered to Shin a real train packed with explosives to blow up in a film. Soon, the couple convinced Kim Jong Il to allow them to open a film office in Vienna where, in 1986, they absconded with a large amount of Kim’s cash and defected to the West.
Shin and Choi detailed the alleged kidnapping in their own lengthy Korean-language autobiography Our Escape Has Not Yet Ended. The story has been covered in Paul Fischer’s English-language book A Kim Jong Il Production and in the recent documentary The Lovers and the Despot. However, critics of their story have pointed out that though Shin was once one of South Korea’s most heralded filmmakers in South Korea, the ROK government had revoked his filmmaking license in 1975, three years prior to his 1978 arrival north of the DMZ. Additionally, Shin’s close friend, Japanese journalist Tetsuo Nishida, claimed in his book Fictional Image that prior to his disappearance, Shin had told Nishida that he had received an offer to make films for the North. Whatever you think of how Shin got to North Korea, his impact of the country’s cinema is undeniable.
Though Shin and Choi’s names have been removed, the Emissary Unreturned is the only film by Shin Sang Ok found easily in the DPRK on DVD (though strangely absent in the DPRK 2016 film catalog, Korean Film Art). This historical drama is based on the play Hyolbun Mangukhoe (Resentment at the World Conference), reportedly also written by Kim Il Sung and elevated to the status of one of the country’s five great revolutionary plays. Shin elected to give Choi directing credit, and she won the Special Jury Prize for Best Director at the 1984 Karlovy International Film Festival. At the same festival, Shin and Choi held a press conference in which they announced that they had willingly defected to the North. The film also played on London. Though the screening was picketed by South Koreans, it was reviewed positively as “a broad, oriental-flavoured theme in guises ranging from the march-like to patriotic and romantic for its story of Korean heroism at the turn of the century – a major surprise.”
The story details the efforts of three Korean emissaries at the 1907 Second Hague Peace Convention, dispatched in secret by the Choson Dynasty’s King Gojong in a last ditch attempt to thwart the annexation of Korea to Japan. The film hits all the classic North Korean cues as the patriotic but naive Koreans attempt to buy political influence by delivering lavish gifts to representatives from other nations. They are ultimately out-influenced by the Japanese and betrayed by the American delegation. Eventually, lead emissary, Li Jun, delivers an impassioned speech in front of the entire conference before shocking the other delegations by plunging a dagger into his stomach, committing seppuku on the convention floor.
Though the seppuku sequence is a complete fabrication and many of the events as depicted in the film are hyperbolic, it is true that Gojong sent Li Jun, Yi Sang Seol and Yi Wi Jong to the Second Hague Peace Convention. However, the secret emissaries were not even allowed access to the convention hall and, instead, delivered their message through a press conference. The film’s title is also accurate as Li Jun was not to return; he was found dead in his hotel room a few days after the failure of his mission.
The Emissary Unreturned was the first North Korean film shot abroad, though safely behind the iron curtain in Prague, Czech Republic, which doubled as the Netherlands (with the help of stock footage of The Hague). While Western characters were portrayed previously either by Koreans donning comical make-up, visitors from the Eastern Bloc, or the four U.S. Army soldiers who defected North, this film also featured North Korea’s first European ensemble cast. The film was shot at Barrandov Studios in Prague, where, the following year, the same studios were used for Milos Forman’s Amadeus.
The Emissary Unreturned is the only film on the list not available online with English subtitles. Korean speakers can view it without subtitles HERE, or you can track down a copy with English subtitles during one of YPT’s North Korea tours.
#3 Wolmi Island
Dir. Jo Kyong-sun, 1982
Synopsis from Korean Film Art:
When the fatherland is faced with a grim trial, Company Commander Li Tae-Un and his coast artillerymen go into battle with a heroic resolve.
On the first day of the battle, they frustrate the enemies’ attempt to land, but with heavy casualties. With death-defying determination not to waste the blood of the fallen comrades they deal an annihilating blow to the enemy once more on the second day. What left are a few gunmen, one gun, and half a dozen rounds of shells. They become human shells and fight like phoenix to defend Wolmi Island from the enemy’s landing for three days.
Produced by the February 8th Film Studio (later, the April 25 Film Studio) with the cooperation of the Korean People’s Army, this is North Korea’s answer to classic war epics like The Battle of Britain and A Bridge Too Far. As we know, at the outset of the Korean War, North Korean troops quickly overran the majority of South Korea. The tide of the war changed in September, 1950 when MacArthur’s troops captured Incheon through a series of landings. One of these landings was on the small island of Wolmi, one-kilometer off the coast of Incheon. At 6:30am on September 15, U.S. troops stormed the beach at Wolmi Island. By noon, they had captured the island with only 14 casualties. Wolmi Island, the film, spins this undeniable defeat into a spiritual victory.
History aside, parts of the film are emotionally effective. Penned by screenwriter Li Jin U, writer of the multi-part spy series Nameless Heroes (now-famous for featuring major roles played by the four American GI’s that defected to North Korea),Wolmi Island tells the epic tale of Commander Li Tae-Un as he and his small company heroically defend the island for three days with only four large guns. According to the film, this small group of soldiers, with iron-willed resolve to “never yield the road to Pyongyang,” destroyed dozens of enemy ships and aircraft and held off MacArthur’s siege for three full days before finally succumbing to tremendous enemy superiority.
The film also features a mesmerizing theme, introduced on-screen by actress Yu Su Gyong as the endearing 17 year-old KPA radio operator, Yong Ok:
Dead or alive, we’re in your embrace,
I call you with boundless emotion,
O, my country that is called mother,
I know it’s the embrace of the general.
The film features plenty of action, with shoot-outs and exploding boats and aircraft. In one sequence, a soldier swims out amongst the enemy warships and destroys one when he manually thrusts a mine into its hull. Upon observing this, a captured American soldier held prisoner in the North Korean trenches laments: “We can’t beat them. America may win a battle but not war. MacArthur’ll suffer the shame of defeat all his life. Curse to MacArthur!”
To erase any doubt as to the veracity of the story, the film ends with the binding words of Kim Il Sung:
The shore battery men of Wolmi Island fought well. They fought bravely to the last man to ensure the strategic retreat of the People’s army as ordered by supreme HQ’s and checked the enemy’s landing for 3 days. We cannot forget their heroic services.
It is worth noting that this film was made in 1982 when Kim Jong Il was revamping the Korean film industry to make films for commercial export. With that in mind, Screenwriter Li Jin U may have been able to write a more subversive and effective film had he focused on the real fact that prior to the landing at Wolmi Island, U.S. warplanes dropped a total of 93 canisters of napalm on the island and killed scores of civilians. So thorough was the bombing that one U.S. Marine pilot wrote in his report: “The mission was to saturate the area so thoroughly with napalm that all installations on that area would be burned…the flashes observed on the ground indicated the intensity of the fire to be accurate enough to destroy any about.”
Watch Wolmi Island on YouTube with English Subtitles HERE.
Dir. Shin Sang Ok, 1985
Pulgasari, certainly among the most infamous cultural exports of North Korea, is an altogether different beast. While Godzilla was born of the Japanese’ commentary on nuclear energy, Pulgasari was born of the class struggle. The film is unusual in the North Korean cinematic canon for both its fantasy subject matter and visual dynamism. Owing to director’s Shin Sang-Ok’s long career as a revered South Korean director, the film calls upon a wealth of flashy camera techniques and more appealing art direction than most previously produced North Korean films. The soundscape, too, is more complex. The synthesized score is at once a product of its time and evocative of traditional Korean melodies.
The film is set in feudal Songdo (today, Kaesong) Korea, where the virtuous peasants are terrorized by a tyrannical governor who seizes all of their iron tools and utensils. A blacksmith is jailed when he refuses to turn the tools into swords for the governor’s army. In jail, he sculpts a glob of rice into a small figure of a horned creature. “Because I made you with the last of my true heart,” he tells the sculpture during an emotional monologue, “please save humanity in my place.” The blacksmith dies and his daughter Ami finds the sculpture in his hand.
Later, Ami pricks her finger while sewing and a drop of blood lands on the sculpture, which comes to life and eats Ami’s sewing needle. From there, it consumes all of the iron in sight and grows into a giant monster, Pulgasari. Pulgasari fights alongside the farmers to take down the wicked governor. However, Pulgasari outlasts its usefulness, and, after devouring the enemy’s weapons, he begins to scarf down the farmers’ tools. Ami hides in a large bell and is consumed by the monster which causes Pulgasari to explode. Some have suggested that Shin hid within Pulgasari a criticism of Kim Il Sung; the once champion and liberator of the people was now depriving his people to enrich itself.
While the film is often mocked as a so-bad-it’s-good Godzilla rip-off, it actually has more legitimate ties to Gozilla than many knock-offs. Shin hired Toho Studios hot off the heels of Godzilla 1985 to design Pulgasari. Kenpachiro Satsuma, who donned the monster suit in Godzilla 1985 was also hired to portray Pulgasari on screen. Satsuma and 15 Toho technicians first worked on the film at Beijing Dian Ying Studios and then in North Korea where they were housed in a mansion that purportedly belonged to Kim Jong Il.
Not only did Satuma later say that he preferred the Pulgasari suit to the one used in Godzilla 1985, he later told an audience at the 2014 Bib Wow Comicfest: “When people saw Pulgasari, people from Toho were actually saying it was more entertaining than Godzilla, 1985…” Satsuma later wrote a book about the experience called North Korea Seen Through The Eyes of Godzilla. Unfortunately, it has yet to receive an English translation.
For Pulgasari, the Toho technicians employed the same photographic tricks of scale used in Godzilla 1985, though to lesser effect. The titular monster, Pulgasari, is the only skyscraper-scale beast in the film, so we have little reference for a true sense of his size. More problematic yet, being a period piece, there is no towering skyline for us to compare him to. He is typically seen lumbering among plastic treetops or against a bright blue sky, which fails to capture his intended size in the same way as a lizard ravaging a cardboard Tokyo.
However, the inverse is pulled off beautifully. Pulgasari begins his life small enough to fit inside the palm of our protagonist’s hands, and a scene early on where he sparks to life in her sewing box works rather convincingly. The scene is achieved using an oversized set of the box for the monster to interact with while Ami looks on in disbelief, complete with enormous scissors and needles for scale.
Pulgasari makes generous use of long zoom lenses, the camera always lurching into characters as they deliver dialog or trade blows. It taps into some of the raw kineticism of a Shaw Brothers production, with shaky handheld camerawork and brisk edits punctuating the action, capitalizing on the chaos between cuts to energize the battle scenes. This does lead to some confusing, nonexistent geography in the large-scale battle sequences pitting Pulgasari and the peasant army against the governor’s minions, though this isn’t an uncommon gripe in monster movies originating from any country.
The film was a huge hit in North Korea. One of my guides in North Korea’s rural North Hamgyong province told me that when the film was released, he had to stand in the back of the theater in order to see it. Though Shin Sang-Ok’s name was subsequently scrubbed from its credits, with credit going to his assistant director Chong Gon Jo, the film is unavailable today inside the DPRK. We owe the fact that copies still circulate to Japanese distributor Raging Thunder which released the film on VHS and in select theaters in Japan in 1998.
When I contacted the man behind Raging Thunder’s release, the eccentric Fumio Furuya, he was hesitant to discuss his involvement. “Yeah, I did distribute that movie,” he said. “But the movie had already been…subtitled by someone else and I was just asked to distribute it. So, I wasn’t actually digging North Korean stuff…I mean, I’m not saying I don’t wanna do it. But it’s just that I don’t know enough to be interviewed and Japanese media might go against me if I do that.”
Toho technicians on the set of Pulgasari
Watch Pulgasari for free online with English subtitles HERE.
#1 Order No. 27
Dir. Jung Ki Mo and Kim Un Suk, 1986
Synopsis from Korean Film Art:
Failing to make contact at Yongchon Station due to an unpredicted incident in the train, the special task team makes a forced march to the next rendezvous. They brave through all dangers of the enemy’s frequent search, persistent chase and ever-changing situations. Although they experience heart-rending pain and agony of losing some squad members on the way, they fulfill the mission with credit, cherishing the order given by the fatherland as trust in them.
If Wolmi Island is North Korea’s answer to war classics, Order No. 27 is its answer to The Inglorious Bastards. According to Johannes Schonherr, author of North Korean Cinema: A History, the film is a clear indication of Shin’s impact on North Korean filmmaking and the filmmakers were so intent on delivering a quality action film that several actors were inured during filming.
Also produced by the February 8 Film Studio (later, April 25 Film Studio), Order No. 27 is set during the Korean war and centers around a group of commandos stuck behind enemy lines. While attempting to fulfill their mission, the commandos find themselves in a variety of precarious situations which deliver some well executed shoot-outs, a taekwando fight sequence filmed on top of a moving train, and a nod to the 1976 ax murder incident when a North Korean uses an ax to murder a South Korean soldier.
A commando leads the escape from approaching South Korean forces while simultaneously driving a jeep with his foot and shooting a machine gun … Only in Order No. 27
Finally, the film climaxes gloriously when the captain grabs onto an enemy helicopter at take-off and blows it up with grenades up in the air. Just before the chopper explodes, we hear his inner monologue: “Comrades, I entrust the mission to you. Now I am proud because I can fulfill the mission. The happiness of our Party’s soldiers is the devotion to our great leader and party.”
Order No. 27 is pure camp, great entertainment, and could have been made only in North Korea.