An international film festival opened yesterday in what may seem the unlikeliest of places: North Korea.
Held every two years, the Pyongyang International Film Festival offers North Koreans their only chance to see a wide array of foreign films on the big screen — from the UK, Germany and elsewhere (but not the US). It is also the only time foreigners are allowed into North Korean theaters to watch movies alongside locals.
This year, festivalgoers will get the chance to see two feature films shot in North Korea, but edited overseas: the romantic comedy Comrade Kim Goes Flying, a joint North Korean-European production, and Meet in Pyongyang, made in conjunction with a Chinese studio.
Foreign offerings include a Sherlock Holmes film and the romantic comedy The Decoy Bride from Britain, the Jet Li (李連杰) kung fu film Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, the French hit Women on the 6th Floor about a community of Spanish emigres to Paris and two love stories from Iran.
While it’s true that homegrown movies predictably tend toward communist propaganda with a healthy dose of tear-jerker, North Korea is a film-crazy country. Well-to-do residents pay as much as 500 won (about US$5) to see new releases from the government-run Korean Film Studio, as well as Russian and Chinese imports.
Those who don’t have the means to go to the theater tune into the Mansudae TV channel, which shows mostly Chinese and Eastern European films on weekends. Some recent offerings have included Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the only Western offering shown on state TV in recent memory, the British film Bend It Like Beckham, which aired in 2010.
This year, a huge screen in front of the Pyongyang train station has become another popular place to watch movies. On Monday, hundreds of locals stood transfixed by a North Korean drama in a plaza in front of the station.
US films are rare, with one exception: Disney films can be found at North Korean DVD shops. A concert for North korean leader Kim Jong-un in July featured performers dressed as Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh and other Disney characters.
Kim’s father and predecessor, the late Kim Jong-il, was a notorious film buff.
He was seven when he saw his first film — My Hometown — the inaugural film made at by the Korean Film Studio. The film, about a young man who returns to his village after Korea is liberated from Japan, made a lifelong impression on the future leader, according to Choe Hung-ryol, director of the studio’s external affairs department.
In 1973 Kim Jong-il published a treatise called “On the Art of the Cinema,” in which he extolled filmmaking as a way to aid the people’s “development into true communists.”
“Creative work is not a mere job, but an honorable revolutionary task,” he wrote.
In 1978, Kim Jong-il “recruited” a South Korean director, Shin Sang-ok, and his actress ex-wife, Choi Eun-hee. According to the late director’s memoirs, he was lured to Pyongyang to make propaganda films, but he and his wife slipped away from their bodyguards during a 1986 trip to Vienna.
Kim Jong-il’s father, North Korea founder Kim Il-sung, also wrote a film called The Flower Girl, and current leader Kim Jong-un also has a keen interest in film, according to studio spokesman Choe.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Choe acknowledged that the main purpose of North Korean cinema is propaganda.