“North Korean Cinema: A History”

8 12 2013

Johannes Schonherr_NK Cinema_A History_cover pageReview: “There is one man who stands above them all in terms of North Korea cinema: Johannes Schonherr. Schonherr has recorded for prosperity’s sake some marvellous adventures associated with North Korean cinema that those of us unable to read Korean may never have discovered…excellent…Schonherr [has] written the only ‘essential’ book on North Korean cinema that you could need.” —North Korean Films.

About the Book: Like many ideological dictatorships of the twentieth century, North Korea has always considered cinema an indispensible propaganda tool. No other medium penetrated the whole of the population so thoroughly, and no other medium remained so strictly and exclusively under state control. Through movies, the two successive leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il propagandized their policies and sought to rally the masses behind them, with great success.

This volume chronicles the history of North Korean cinema from its beginnings to today, examining the obstacles the film industry faced as well as the many social problems the films themselves reveal. It provides detailed analyses of major and minor films and explores important developments in the industry within the context of the concurrent social and political atmosphere. Through the lens of cinema emerges a fresh perspective on the history of North Korean politics, culture, and ideology.

About the Author:Johannes Schonherr is a freelance writer specializing in travel, film and food. He lives in Japan.

Interview with Johannes Schönherr, North Korea cinema expert, by North Korean Films

Read Introduction and Chapter 1 on-line

Read Chapter 6 of this book on-line

Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: McFarland (August 13, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0786465263
ISBN-13: 978-0786465262
Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 6.8 x 9.8 inches

By this book on Amazon.com

North Korean Films will be screened at the SIFF

25 10 2013

SIFF promoSydney Intercultural Film Festival (SIFF) will be held between the 14th and 24th November 2013 to showcase films that celebrate cultural diversity, whether through topics or through the make-up of filmmakers. Throughout these 11 days of Festival, ethnic communities in Sydney will work together with media professionals, local government and international film industry to show the grand diversity of cultures that are present in Australia.​

The term “Intercultural” usually connotes the relationship and exchange between different cultures, but here it will be a fusion of the terms “Multicultural” and “International” that form the two vital elements of the SIFF. Multiculturalism here is not just limited to the ethnic make up of individual countries or regions but encompasses the cultures around the whole world.

SIFF will be the first film festival in Australia that will screen films produced in the DPRK. A variety of classical movies and new films are selected to represent the North Korean cinematography. Five films with English subtitles and two with on-the-stage English language simultaneous interpretation will be offered.

The Australian audience is curious to learn more about the film-making tradition evolved on the northern part of the Korean peninsula divided by military and ideological conflict. Drama, action, and national division are the main themes that dominate North Korean films, but comedy and romance are also present and appeal to the aesthetic taste of domestic and international audiences.

The Kites Flying in the Sky_screen shot“The Kites Flying in the Sky” 하늘의 연 (2008, 94 min., English sub., Dir. P’yo Kwang and Kim Hyon-chol)

This film is based on the true story of a former marathon champion, whose family repatriated to North Korea from Japan. Instead of bright career in sports, she devoted her life to caring for orphans left without parents during the Grand Famine era of the late 1990s. “The Kites Flying in the Sky” was the only North Korean feature film to be screened at the 11th Pyongyang International Film Festival, where it was awarded. Despite local success, the film was poorly received by foreign viewers, who usually dismiss it as “syrupy and propagandistic”.

Available on-line: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Db_dojLCOhg

Oh Youth_screen shot“Oh, Youth!” 청충이여(1995, 90 min., English sub., Dir. Jeon Jong-p’al)

“O Youth!” is a mix of comedy, romance, sycophantic zeal and Taekwondo. A North Korean family with six siblings, five of which are young sportswomen, try to marry off the only son, a 30-year-old bachelor who is preoccupied with his studies. His mother wants him to marry an effeminate girl. His father and sisters, on the opposite, want him to marry a sportswoman. Ultimately, the son falls in love with a woman who reconciles the family…

Available on-line: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9mfYOpExhQ

From Spring to Summer_screen shot“From Spring to Summer” 봄부터 여름까지 (1987, 82 min., English sub., Joint Russian-DPRK production)

This film tells the dramatic story of a Soviet military group that secretly entered the Japanese-occupied Korea during the last days of WWII in the Pacific. Preventing the creation of new powerful weapon in the clandestine military base, the Russian female soldier Masha and many Korean guerrillas sacrifice their lives for the liberation of Korea.

Available on-line with Russian subs: http://kinokartoshka.net/sovetskie-voennye-filmy/4663-utomlennoe-solnce-smotret-online.html

Schoolgirls Diary_screen shot“A Schoolgirl’s Diary 한녀학생의 일기 (2006, 93 min., English sub., Dir. Jang In-hak,).

One of the most successful films produced in North Korea, “The Schoolgirl’s Diary” received high praise at the international film festivals in Pyongyang and Cannes. It chronicles a girl’s life through her school years: one that’s full of the peer pressure and family problems familiar everywhere. It attempts to resolve the growing conflict between selfish individualism and patriotic self-sacrifice.

Available on-line: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YreSvdWk9oA

Hong Kil-Dong_screen shot“Hong Gil-Dong” 홍길동 (1985, 104 min. English sub., Dir. Kim Kil-in)

Classical historical novel about the Korean Robin Hood tells the story of friendship and love in medieval Korea, in which this Kung-Fu action movie takes place. The illegitimate son of a nobleman and one of his concubines, Hong Kil-dong was rejected by his own family and embarked on the travel through the corrupt world, where he robbed the rich to help the poor. “Hong Kil Dong” is different from the other North Korean movies by its psychological depth, and numerous lyrical digressions, full with romance and emotion.

Available on-line: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2dG5BQOVhI

Destiny of Keumhee and Eunhee_screen shotThe Destiny of Keumhee and Eunhee금희와 은희의 운명 (1974, 101 min. Dir. Pak Hak and Eom Kil-seon, no subs)

One of the classics of North Korean cinematography, this film emulates the best examples of Soviet and Chinese film-making traditions. The story is based on the famous novel about the twin-sisters separated by the Korean War. Never heard about each other again, they live in the very different societies separated by the civil and ideological conflict. This film laments the national division and masterfully portrays the grim reality of the post-war time in Korea.

Partly available on-line: http://pann.nate.com/video/214453658

Partly available on-line: http://pann.nate.com/video/214453748

Partly available on-line: http://pann.nate.com/video/214453824

Our Fragrance_screen shot“Our Fragrance” 우리의 향기 (2003, 85 min., Dir. Jeon Jong-p’al, no subs.)

This film analyses the early changes and nascent conflicts, which began emerging in contemporary North Korean society. Foreign cultural influences, growing materialism and consumerism are believed to create obstacles for the advancement of Korean-style Socialism. A romance between a traditionalist researcher and a young female interpreter turns into a tough examine for both of them and their families.

Available on-line with English subs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtuXVFPcAHE

North Korea’s Very Cautious Cinematic Thaw

4 12 2008

By MALTE HERWIG, The New York Times (November 21, 2008)

The Pyongyang International Cinema House was packed for screenings at North Korea’s film festival in September 2008.

The Pyongyang International Cinema House was packed for screenings at North Korea’s film festival in September 2008 (copyright MALTE HERWIG).

HUMOR may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the citizens of North Korea, a country known mostly for militant anti-Western propaganda, chronic food shortages and an internationally isolated government pursuing nuclear weapons. And yet audiences at the 11th Pyongyang International Film Festival here clearly enjoyed themselves this fall during screenings of Western dramas and comedies, occasionally even erupting into riotous laughter.

In most other countries movies like Marcus H. Rosenmüller’s “Heavyweights,” a lighthearted comedy about a group of Bavarian villagers contending in the 1952 Winter Olympics, would be harmless fun. But not in North Korea, and to prove it there was a man with a piece of cardboard sitting in the projection room to cover the lens in case anything deemed unseemly to Korean eyes was shown.

That day, mercifully, the cardboard-wielding censor wasn’t particularly good at his job. His hapless attempts to maintain officially sanctioned decency only added to the amusement of the 2,000 moviegoers in the gigantic Pyongyang International Cinema House, who responded energetically to the sight of a half-dozen outsize German bobsledders baring their bottoms and stuffing themselves with food and beer to gain weight for a competition. It was an unusual sight in this corner of the world, to say the least…

See the full text of the article here…

See more articles by MALTE HERWIG here…

“North Korea: A Day In The Life”

19 11 2008

human_rights_film_festival_posterCanberra’s inaugural Human Rights Arts and Film Festival will screen for three nights from Thursday 20 November at the Finkel Theatre, Australian National University. The festival will showcase a bold collection of award-winning Australian and international films, introduced by human rights experts.  For full program details and to buy tickets, visit www.hraff.org.au/canberra.html

North Korea: A Day In The Life (The Netherlands, 48 min.) will be screened on Saturday 22 November at 6.30pm.

Guest speaker: Dr Leonid Petrov, ANU

In this narration-less documentary the family of Hong Sun Hui, a female worker in a textile factory, is taking us through an ordinary day in the country of the Beloved Leader Kim Jong Il. The people undergo an endless stream of propaganda. Unmoved, they perform their duty. At the nursery school, Hong’s daughter learns that ‘flowers need the sun and she needs the love of the Great Leader to grow’. The system of indoctrination, control and self-criticism seems both frightening and ridiculous. Although unexpected, an escape is underway: English lessons for Hong’s brother seem to bring a spark of hope. But ‘Internet’ is still just a word: it means International Network!

Thursday 20 November
In Our Backyard – Australian Shorts Session
Guest speaker: Professor George Williams, University of NSW
Opening Night Drinks 5.45pm, screening 6.30pm

Friday 21 November
The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo
Guest speaker: the film’s Emmy-Award winning director, Lisa Jackson
Screening 6.30pm

Saturday 22 November – Short Film Double-Bill
North Korea: A Day In The Life (The Netherlands)
Please Vote For Me
Guest speaker: Dr Leonid Petrov, ANU
Screening 6.30pm followed by Closing Night Drinks

Venue: Finkel Theatre, John Curtin School of Medical Research, Building 54c, Garran Road, ANU (map)


“Crossing” – a New Film about Life in NK

1 06 2008

영화 '크로싱' 포스터

There have been no accurate films about life in the DPRK With the contentious exception of “The Person Who Remains in My Heart” (1989) and “A Schoolgirl’s Diary” (2006) the North Koreans themselves prefer not to produce anything close to reality. The South Korean filmmakers do not exactly know what happens inside the borders of their northern neighbour and always risk misrepresenting the reality, limiting themselves to comedies and spy thrillers. Foreign producers and directors simply are not interested.
It now looks like what we have been waiting for has finally arrived. The new film “Crossing” by director Kim Tae-gyun is an attempt to depict the daily life in North Korea (with focus on poverty, starvation, concentration camps) and the dangers of escape route via China and Mongolia. The Korean-American producer, Patrick Choi, tried with this film to help the world understand the plight of North Koreans suffering from the human rights abuse.
Based on the real story, this film shows a 10-year-old boy who, after all sufferings, decided to cross the border, failed to storm a Western embassy in Beijing, and tragically died in the Mongolian desert on his way to freedom. “Cry with us!” calls the film poster. The lives and emotions of the characters are all true and touching. But were the realities of life in North Korea depicted correctly? Go to the cinema and watch the film to find the answer. See promotional trails and posters here http://www.crossing2008.co.kr/
…Though it did not win any awards at the Cannes Film Festival last week, “The Crossing” is simply the best film ever made—documentary or otherwise—about the plight of North Koreans.  I had the good fortune of watching an advance screening of the film as part of North Korea Freedom Week in Washington, D.C.  Attendance was not as strong as I had hoped, but there was hardly a dry eye in the theater and one defector could not stop sobbing after the film ended.
What makes “The Crossing” so powerful is not just that it is a tear-jerker, but that it gets almost every detail right.  From the joys and hardships faced by the average North Korean and the unspeakable horrors that take place in the notorious gulags (suyongso) to the perils of crossing into China and Mongolia as well as the difficulty of resettlement in the South, the movie is incredibly realistic.  In fact, the director’s biggest concern was getting the conditions right.  To that end, he met with more than 100 defectors.  The only scene where a few of us have questioned the accuracy is when Cha is able to turn on a light in the middle of the night in what might be Hoeryeong… 
See the full text of the review by Peter Beck here

탈북자 다룬 영화 ‘크로싱’-워싱턴서 첫 시사회

탈북자 문제를 본격적으로 다룬 한국의 첫 상업영화 ‘크로싱’이 오는 28일 이 곳 워싱턴에서 처음으로 시사회를 갖습니다. 이 영화를 직접 구상하고 제작한 패트릭 최 씨는 ‘미국의 소리’방송과의 인터뷰에서, 북한의 심각한 인권 문제가 핵과 동등하게 세계인들에 알려지길 희망해 영화 제작과 시사회를 결정했다고 말했습니다. 오는 26일부터 워싱턴에서 열리는 제 5회 북한자유주간 행사의 일환으로 열리는 이번 시사회에 관해 김영권 기자가 알아봤습니다.
탈북자들의 실제 이야기를 재구성한 한국 영화 ‘크로싱’ 이 오는 28일 워싱턴에서 첫 선을 보입니다. 제 5회 북한자유주간을 주최하는 북한자유연합의 남신우 부의장은 23일 ‘미국의 소리’ 방송과의 전화 인터뷰에서 ‘크로싱’ 시사회 일정이 28일로 최종 확정됐다고 말했습니다.
“우리가 하는 행사의 기본이 북한 인권과 탈북자이니까 이 영화가 전체적으로 개봉하기 전에 시사회를 할 수 있고, 또 미국의 기자들에게 보여줘서 북한자유주간의 일부분으로 기여할 수 있다는 데 큰 의미가 있다고 봅니다.” 한국의 인기배우 차인표가 주연을 맡은 영화 ‘크로싱’은 병든 아내를 고칠 약과 배고픔에 지친 가족들의 식량을 구하기 위해 중국으로 탈북한 한 남성이 어린 아들과 엇갈린 만남을 반복하며 겪는 탈북자들의 가슴 아픈 이야기를 중국, 몽골 현지 촬영을 통해 매우 사실적으로 그리고 있습니다.
28일 미국 의회도서관과 워싱턴 시내 한 문화공간 (Ebenezers Coffeehouse)에서 두 차례 열릴 이번 시사회에는 영화의 프로듀서와 작가가 직접 참석해 마지막 시사회 뒤 기자회견을 가질 예정입니다. 4~5년 여 전부터 이 영화를 직접 구상하고 제작을 주도한 미주 한인 프로듀어 패트릭 최 씨는 23일 ‘미국의 소리’ 방송과의 전화 인터뷰에서, 북한 인권에 대한 실상을 세계인들과 나누고 싶어 영화를 제작하게 됐다고 말했습니다.
“미국 뿐아니라 전세계에, 물론 한국 사람들도 마찬가지겠지만 북한에 대해서 지금 핵 문제에 대해서만 많은 사람들이 알고 있는데 그 밖에도 인권 문제도 똑 같은 중요성을 갖고 많은 사람들이 알았으면 좋겠습니다.” 최 씨는 북한 인권 문제의 실상을 사실적으로 다룬 만큼 개봉 전에 미국 내 주요 인사들에게 이 영화를 먼저 소개하고 싶었다고 말했습니다.
이 영화를 연출한 김태균 감독은 최근 일반에 공개한 영상 편지에서 영화감독으로서 꼭 만들어야만 하는 영화가 있다며, ‘크로싱’ 이 바로 그런 영화라고 말했습니다. “10년 정도 된 것 같아요. 탈북자들. 또 북한의 식량난 때문에 거리를 떠돌아 다니는 꽃제비들을 촬영한 영상이 있었는데 너무너무 가까운 곳에서 그런 일이 벌어지고 있다는 것에 대해서 너무 가슴 아프고 내가 살아있다는 것 자체가 너무 부끄러워지는 생각이 들었었어요. 그 기억이 제가 이 영화를 시작하게 된 첫 동기일지도 몰라요.” 김 감독은 이 영화를 통해 특히 남북한이 한 핏줄, 한 가족임을 느끼게 되길 소망한다고 덧붙였습니다.
프로듀서 패트릭 최 씨는 4년 여의 영화 제작기간 동안 재정 문제 등 여러 어려움이 있었지만 그 때마다 북한주민을 사랑하는 투자가들이 나타나 고비를 넘겼다며, 덕분에 영화가 잘 만들어졌다고 말했습니다. “잘 나왔다고 생각합니다. (웃음.) 여러가지 힘든 과정들이 있었고, 또 우리가 여러 탈북자들을 인터뷰했었고, 정확한 정보를 갖고 영화를 만드려고 노력했고, 결과는 우리가 만들려고 했던 영화가 나온 것 같습니다.”
영화 ‘크로싱’은 5월 중순 세계적인 프랑스 칸느영화제에 별도로 마련된 영화출품시장에서 구매자들에게 첫 선을 보인 뒤 6월 5일 한국에서 개봉될 예정입니다.
See promotional trails and posters here http://www.crossing2008.co.kr/main/main.asp

Retrospective Screening of North Korean Films in Australia

24 04 2008

6-8 May 2008 from 6 to 8 PM,
in Room G051, Melville Hall,
Australian National University,
Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia

Anyone interested in contemporary North Korea is warmly invited to attend a unique series of retrospective film screenings by Dr. Leonid Petrov. Please note that the films shown have no subtitles, but will be preceded by an explanatory synopsis in English. Complete synopses of the movies are available here.

Dr. Leonid Petrov (RSPAS, ANU), who has been studying and teaching North Korearelated subjects for many years, will provide a brief introduction and lead the discussion. Dr. Petrov is currently working on the projects “Historical Conflict and Reconciliation in East Asia” (ANU-ARC) and “North-South Interfaces on the Korean Peninsula” (French CNRS-EHESS).

(1974, Dir. by Pak Hak and Ŏm Kilsŏn, 101 min. No subtitles; synopsis in English)
Room G051, Melville Hall: 18:00 – 20:00
One of the classics of North Korean cinematography, this film emulates the best examples of Soviet and Chinese film making traditions. The story is based on the famous novel by Paek Injun about two twins separated by the Korean War.


Having lost contact with each other, the sisters live in the very different societies separated by civil and ideological conflict. Kŭmhŭi lives a happy and comfortable life in North Korea, where she can see her talent for singing and dancing fulfilled. Her sister, Ŭnhŭi, on the contrary, is destined to suffer in the South, surrounded by social evils and class inequality. This film laments the national division and claims the superiority of the socialist system.The film wonderfully portrays the grim reality of everyday life shortly after the Korean War.

Our Fragrance

(2003, Dir. by Chŏn Chongp’al, 85 min. No subtitles; synopsis in English)
Room G051, Melville Hall: 18:00 – 20:00
This film reflects the early changes and nascent conflicts that emerged in North Korean society after the introduction of market-oriented reforms in July 2002. Foreign cultural influences, growing materialism and consumerism are believed to create obstacles for the advancement of Korean-style socialism.

Pyŏngho, a researcher-scientist who develops new types of the traditional dish kimch’i, comes from a conservative family. He tries to preserve and incorporate the traditional values into modern life. A young guide-interpreter, Saebyŏl, who works for an international travel company, is overly accustomed to the lifestyle influenced by foreign traditions. The two meet at the fashion show in Pyongyang, where their participation becomes a major trial to both them and their families.

(2006, Dir. by Chang Inhak, 93 min. No subtitles; synopsis in English)
Room G051, Melville Hall: 18:00 – 20:00

One of the most recent films produced in North Korea, The Schoolgirl’s Diary immediately hit the box-office record locally, won a prize at the 2006 International Pyongyang Film Festival, and even found its way overseas. The film chronicles a girl’s life throughout her school years, full of mundane problems such as peer pressure and concerns over money.

The main character, Suryŏn, is preparing to make a major decision on what to do with her life after school. She analyses her childhood and questions her parents’ difficult life. Suryŏn’s family lives in a rundown country house, her mother is suffering from cancer, and her father is a workaholic who spends days and nights at the factory working on a scientific project. Tensions at home and school translate into depression and disenchantment with her parents. However, one day Suryŏn comes to realise her selfishness and immaturity.