The Dictator Auteur: Investigating North Korea’s Hidden Movie Culture

By  · Published on April 9th, 2013

This ain’t exactly breaking news, but North Korea is making headlines again for, amongst other things, threatening to re-ignite its ongoing conflict with South Korea as well as send missiles into a strange selection of American cities, including the home of Reject HQ. Just as the unpredictable, inscrutable, hermetically sealed-off dictatorship is characteristically vague in its threats, North Korea’s culture is something of an enigma writ large: very little of it is witnessed by persons outside the country, and even less culture moves into the country itself.

In the age of the Internet, we’ve found out about North Korean life through journalists’ state-sanctioned tours, stories from those who were once held captive in the nation, or simply peripheral experiences like North Korea’s one-of-a-kind one-star airline. North Korean culture appears only in a piecemeal fashion to the outside eye – we receive esoteric details here and there, but little of it adds up to a cohesive picture of what North Korean life looks like from the inside.

National cinemas have typically provided a shorthand for understanding a foreign culture. With what little we’ve been able to see of North Korean cinema, the nation’s cinematic history is as strange yet one-note as one might expect. But it also represents something of a former era. Whereas ideology permeates implicitly and heterogeneously within much of 21st century global cinema, North Korean cinema maintains a particularly 20th century sensibility in its decisive use of filmmaking for the benefit of the state apparatus.

Easily the best-known of North Korea’s cinematic output is the 1985 monster movie Pulgasari (which Scott wrote about last week), a film that’s not only well-known for being the Democratic People’s Republic’s answer to Japan’s Godzilla franchise, but because the story behind its making involves the direct kidnapping of a South Korean filmmaker admired by Kim Jong-Il for the express purpose of making propa-tainment for the state.

But Pulgasari is something of an exception amongst North Korea’s cinematic output, which has typically shied away from recognizable genre work in favor of a more traditional revolutionary aesthetic. While the nation’s output during the Korean War consisted mostly of films designed to support the war front (not unlike any other country at war that enjoyed access to cinematic technology during the mid-20th century), North Korea’s best-known postwar films, including Sea of Blood (1968) and The Flower Girl (1972), were adaptations of revolutionary operas.

Kim Il-Sung (Kim Jong-Il’s father and the first leader of the DPRNK) apparently wrote both operas while he spent time in prison in the 1930s, and his years ruling the state saw ample opportunity to form these works into motion pictures. Both works chronicle atrocities committed on behalf of the Japanese during their occupation of Korea prior to WWII. Thus, North Korea during its initial years after the war adopted a state-sanctioned approach to revolutionary cinema that chronicled the relationship of past atrocities to present stasis, just as Eisenstein’s films during the 1920s represented events leading up to the Bolshevik revolution and the establishment of a Communist state in late-teens Russia.

While Kim Il-Sung was allegedly heavily involved in the production of postwar revolutionary films, he had no expressed or particular interest in cinema as an art form. His son, Kim Jong-Il, was a cinephilic dictator whose taste was exceedingly Western, with personal favorites ranging from Rambo to Godzilla to Elizabeth Taylor’s entire filmography. Kim Jong-Il supposedly owned a personal library that held tens of thousands of films in various formats, which Vice spent a great deal of effort never seeing. Clearly, it was Kim Jong-Il’s personal affection for Godzilla that motivated him to order the kidnapping of South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok in order to make Pulgasari and several other state-run films.

Kim Jong-Il (who published at least two books that workers within North Korea’s cinema industry are tested on) was a true cinephile in that his love for the medium seemed to trump his ideological priorities: he admired a filmmaker from North Korea’s worst enemy, he commandeered a film that imitates a classic genre work made by Korea’s former occupiers whose subtext mandates pathos for a post-atom bomb Japan, and he seems to have absolutely adored films made by Hollywood, a nation of which Korean propaganda promises eminent destruction.

However, the films he oversaw (in whatever capacity) exclusively and explicitly served the interests and stated the ideological prerogatives of the state. This illuminates the paradox of a dictator who controls national culture while he enjoys the exclusive privilege of having access to culture outside that nation: during Kim Jong-Il’s rule, North Korean cinema was evidently influenced by outside cinematic cultures, but its captive audience could only see the end result put through the state apparatus, not the films that operated as inspirational cues along the way.

Outside of Pulgasari, I imagine most Korean films are dry, routine, unremarkable works of cinema, yet still interesting as works of propaganda. By the 1980s and 1990s, North Korea seems to have stopped producing films that utilize a historicizing revolutionary aesthetic in favor of contemporary works that propagate and conditions certain rules and expectations of its citizenry. For instance, the film Myself in a Distant Future (1997) tells the story of a city dweller from Pyongyang who falls in love with a plasterer from the countryside and attempts to woo her away to Pyongyang with him. The plasterer refuses, choosing instead to work with her fellow laborers. The hero of the film is the plasterer because she obeys the national prerogative to not to migrate from the countryside to the city, and because she eats rice instead of potatoes in order to preserve the national supply of food (the film depicts a prosperously bountiful Korean countryside during the nation’s four-year famine, which left as many as one million citizens dead).

Myself in a Distant Future seems to fit in with the later propaganda traditions of established dictatorships and rigid political parties, when such nations inevitably move from a revolutionary aesthetic to a direct, prescriptive, (ahem) boring one. Such a move has often been the result of a state clashing with its artisans, like Stalin’s distrust of Eisenstein after making the obliquely critical Ivan the Terrible, Part 2 or Dmitry Shostakovich after his fourth symphony. The French Communist Party, prior to WWII, severed their ties to French surrealists in favor of a one-note realist aesthetic once the avant-garde approach to filmmaking proved too potentially subversive. Today, Iran has its daring cinematic dissidents.

However, North Korea is an exceptional case, for the Kim family has maintained such definite control over and direct involvement in the state’s production of cinema that there seems to have never developed a truly subversive aesthetic that served to create tension between the nation’s creative output and its political imperatives. Kim Il-Sung and (especially) Kim Jong-Il, whether or not they actually played the creative roles to the extent they are alleged, are perhaps 20th century history’s first-ever (or, at least, most evident) Dictator Auteurs in that North Korea’s cinematic output has largely avoided collaborations between state-sanctioned politics and creative individuals, instead retrofitting one in the same. North Korean cinema represents both the worldview of the individual (dictator) and, by extension, the commanding ideology of the state.

Far, far better than the previously linked Vice documentary is this report Al Jazeera conducted several years ago about employees at the center of North Korea’s film industry. The documentary outlines the distinct class stratification that is at the heart of North Korean society, humanizes an otherwise inaccessible and otherwordly culture by showing the everyday lives of several of its (most privileged) citizens, and captures the production problems of North Korea’s resource-scarce approach (the minimalist set of a film about North Korea’s healthcare system featured here is oddly reminiscent of the set of Dirk Diggler’s first film). At the same time, it’s a disturbing portrait of the centralization of national identity to the personality of the individual leader and the stagnation of an exhaustively homogenized culture industry: all notions of artistic production are directly and uniformly credited to the prerogatives of Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il.

Kim Jong-Il’s successor, Kim Jong-Un, has been a rampant consumer of Western culture, but he is not a cinephile, so it remains unclear whether or not North Korea’s cinematic culture will change or go away altogether (and what any of this might do to the situation of a missile aimed at Austin). While East Asia has given the rest of the world an incredibly diverse and rich output of films for decades (especially South Korea during the past decade), North Korea’s cinema culture remains inaccessible, seemingly uniform, and strangely anachronistic. It is perhaps the only contemporary cinema culture whose motivating frame of reference is, almost exclusively, itself.

Writer’s Note: With the exception of Pulgasari, the writer of this piece has not had a chance to see any of the North Korean films discussed because of a lack of availability. Analysis, synopses, and histories are the result of researching the basic storylines and backgrounds of these films online.