Film

A State of Mind – North Korean Film Review

The documentary A State of Mind broke ground in 2003 as the first western production to be allowed unrestricted access into Pyongyang, filming in the homes of friends Pak Hyon Sun (age 13) and Kim Song Yun (age 11), and showing insights into their daily life as they trained for gymnastics performances in a run of mass games.

Their determined preparation leading to the film’s “socialist realist extravaganza” mass games finale is fascinating, but I more enjoyed the peeks into the girl’s daily lives: attempts to ditch homework, delight as one girl inherits a room when an older sister joins the army, and a father complaining about his house full of chatty woman.

The filmmakers successfully present a non judgmental viewpoint, but there is no mistaking the reality of a people’s collectivist mindset. Sacrifice of individuality to the needs of the state is the film’s major theme – which is precisely what the mass game and other mass events aim to be the ultimate representation of.

Filmed a decade ago, this is not the DPRK I am firsthand familiar with, but I still love this documentary and consider it required viewing for anyone with an interest in the country. I personally know the director, and although I haven’t met the girls from the film, I have seen behind the scenes photos of them from the production, making this extra special film for me.

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You can find A State of Mind on Amazon.com.


A Traffic Controller on Crossroads

A great film about my favorite ladies, A Traffic Controller on Crossroads is newly out with English subtitles on Youtube. In The DPRK the film is described as a romantic comedy, and while through a western perspective I found it neither, the film still provides a unique look into North Korean culture via their domestic film industry.


Pyongyang Film Studios

Film Studio Pyongyang, North Korea

Hanging out next to a South Korean brothel on ’60s street at the Pyongyang Film Studios.

From the Lonely Planet online guide – Some 20 films a year are still churned out by the county’s main film studios located in the suburbs of Pyongyang. Kim Il Sung visited the complex around 20 times during his lifetime to provide invaluable on-the-spot guidance, while Kim Jr has been more than 600 times, such is his passionate interest in films. Like all things North Korean, the two main focuses are the anti-Japanese struggle and the anti-American war.

The main complex is a huge, propaganda-filled suite of office buildings where apparently post-production goes on, even though it feels eerily empty. A short uphill drive takes you to the large sets, however, which are far more fun. Here you’ll find a generic ancient Korean town for historic films (you can even dress up as a king or queen and be photographed sitting on a ‘throne’ carpeted in leopard skin), a 1930s Chinese street, a Japanese street, a south Korean street (look for the massage signs that illustrate their compatriots’ moral laxity) and a fairly bizarre range of structures from a collection of ‘European’ buildings. Some groups have been lucky and seen films being made during their visit, although usually it’s hauntingly empty.

More pics from the Pyongyang Film Studio linked below.

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Official DPRK Spring 2012 Video

Thanks to Cyrus Kirkpatrick  who put together this video from our Spring 2012 DPRK trip. 


Comrade Kim Goes Flying – Feature Film World Premiere

Comrade Kim Goes Flying, the first ever feature film done in collaboration between North Korean and Western producers, will have its world premiere screening this September at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Synopsis– from the official site


Comrade Kim Yong Mi is a North Korean coal miner.  Her dream of becoming a trapeze artist is crushed by the arrogant trapeze star Pak Jang Phil who believes miners belong underground and not in the air.  A heartwarming story of trying to make the impossible possible.

Programmer’s Note – From the Toronto International Film Festival

A winning, life-affirming fable about a young coal miner’s pursuit of her dream to become an acrobat, Comrade Kim Goes Flying marks a milestone in film history: it is the first Western-financed fiction feature made entirely in North Korea.  But this charming film wears its heavy historical mantle with grace, weaving a lovely, light-hearted tale whose themes — overcoming adversity, and realizing the dream of a lifetime—upend our assumptions of a largely cloistered culture.

Kim Yong-mi (Han Jong-sim) works as a coal miner in a small village.  She dreams of one day joining the national circus and performing on the trapeze — despite the fact that she is deathly afraid of heights.  When she is promoted and sent to the capital, Pyongyang, she seizes the opportunity to make her dream come true.  Insinuating herself into the circus and struggling to overcome her acrophobia, Yong-mi meets Pak Jang-phil (Pak Chung-guk), the arrogant, good-looking star of the Pyongyang Trapeze Troupe.  At first, Jang-phil makes fun of the congenitally klutzy Yong-mi.  But eventually her beauty, endearing personality and unyielding determination win him over, and give him a valuable lesson in humility.

The team behind Comrade Kim Goes Flying — co-writer and co-director Nicholas Bonner, an Englishman based in Beijing who has long promoted cultural exchange with North Korea; his collaborator Kim Gwang-hun, a North Korean filmmaker; and Belgian filmmaker Anja Daelemans, who also served as co-producer — spent six years putting this unprecedented project together, overcoming numerous difficulties — not least the fact that their stars are actual circus acrobats who had never acted before.  But the result is a gorgeously filmed romantic comedy that transports us to a fantastic world seemingly out of time, with astonishing, candy-coloured images of the seldom-seen North Korea.

The Toronto International Film Festival’s schedule of screenings for Comrade Kim Goes Flying:

September 8 at 3:45 PM Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 3 – World Premiere
September 11 at 9:30 PM Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 5
September 16 at 3:45 PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

It’s great news that this film has made it to the Toronto International Film Festival;  last spring producer Nick Bonner shared with me some of the problems Comrade Kim Goes Flying has had in finding its way to international audiences –paraphrasing from memory:

“Most international film festivals have a policy against screening films they consider to be state sponsored propaganda.  At first glance by those unfamiliar with the colors, music, and emotions presented in North Korean art, this film might give the impression that it’s some form of propaganda, but no North Korean watching Comrade Kim Goes Flying would ever mistake it for such, for them this will be regarded as a fantasy/romantic comedy.” 

Comrade Kim Goes Flying will be shown to audiences throughout the DPRK and will present to them provocative scenes the likes of which have never been seen in North Korean cinema.  I was given the honor to preview some of these clips, and while international viewers might easily overlook their importance, scenes depicting corruption in the state system and child obesity have been designed to shock domestic North Korean audiences.  Viewers will also be treated to what producer Nick Bonner describes as the “sexiest scene in North Korean cinema”, an upward shot of Comrade Kim in her leotard climbing a ladder to the trapeze – YAWZA YAWZA!

One last interesting aspect of the film I should mention is the delightful animation of the opening credits.  The animation during this sequence takes its influence from modern North Korean wood block prints, the style of which can be seen in the promotional picture at the top of this post, and also here in its common form.

Photos credit to the official Comrade Kim Goes Flying website.