Totalitarian Cinema: A preemptive look at North Korea’s film industry

A portrait of Kim Jong-Il looking at a thing. That thing is the production of one of his war zone movie projects, which often included real community housing being burnt down. Real methodical.

I’m currently researching the bureaucratic modes of production for North Korean cinema. It’s a fascinating, critically overlooked area of film studies (in English, at least). I’ll be submitting an essay-length article as part of my Masters programme in the new year (which I’ll also post here), but here’s some fledgling things to consider.

Unlike it’s democratic neighbour to the south, the red state has very little exporting trade of cultural products, most of which are deemed as propagandist tools for the state’s subordinated people. The death of former General Kim Jong-Il last year has brought a paradigm shift to North Korea’s only production house, the government run Korean Film Studio. Over forty five years, the former dictator worked as a ‘guider’ to over 12,000 movie projects, and 400 where he was directly behind the camera. A big fan of Western products like Rambo, Friday the 13th and Schwarzenegger films, it’s unsurprising that his own fearsome film products focus on mortality, war, and communistic solidarity. Perhaps the most prolific filmmaker the world have EVER seen, Jong-Il’s son and successor to the head of state, Kim Jong-Un, allegedly lacks his father’s tenacious artistic drive. Because of this, it seems that the industry is – for want of a better word – opening up to new, undiscovered voices, international co-productions, and a worldwide, imported movie market.

But, lest we forget, the country is still under strict totalitarian regime, meaning it’s unlikely that change, if any at all, will be a painfully gradual process. So, what can we expect? Well, that’s exactly what my essay in the new year will focus on. After partaking in some interviews with knowledgeable academics outside North Korea, I hope to get some emperical insight from the organisers of the bi-annual Pyongyang International Film Festival, looking at whether the days of propagandist media are dying out, or whether international movies are being bought up, dubbed and rereleased with inherently different messages that continue to suppress the people of North Korea and their distinct lack of human rights.

I find this all pretty fascinating stuff. It’s a farcry from interview the latest Twilight movie, for sure. If any readers from across the world wide web would like to divulge any information on what they think of the project, perhaps their own personal relationship with the country and it’s closed culture, than please do get in contact through all the regular means addressed here on the website. Similarly, if you think I’m way off in my admittedly juvenile understanding of North Korea’s film industry, then again, I encourage you to lambast me via your keyboard.

I’ll finish with a link to this mini-documentary from the increasingly credible Qatar news source, Al Jazeera. North Korea’s Cinema of Dreams glimpses in at the nation’s film studio and acting school in a surprisingly positive fashion, even though the people’s patriotic spirit made my Westernised brain feel a little bit weary. Even still, well worth a watch.

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