North Korea lends itself to parody so often that even the spoof Twitter account DPRK_News sounds like the absolute truth as defined by the county’s dictator, Kim Jong-un.
Recent reports that the success of a submarine-launched ballistic missile test was marked by outdoor concerts and mass dancing in the capital Pyongyang are fodder for satirists. Here is footage from a mass dance in 2012 to celebrate Kin Jong-un’s promotion as “Marshal” to get a sense of what state-ordered festivities look like in an authoritarian state.
Like many dictators, Kim Jong-un, his father Kim Jong-il, and grandfather and founder of the dictatorship Kim Il-sung have all been extremely aware of the power of cinema. Kim Jong-il even wanted to create a version of Hollywood in his country, and he famously kidnapped South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his wife in 1978 and forced them to make seven movies for the regime. The couple escaped in Vienna during a film festival and took asylum in the United States of America.
The first North Korean movie was My Home Village (1949), made with the assistance of the erstwhile USSR. Heavy on propaganda and aimed mainly at domestic audiences, North Korean movies are difficult to procure, but some of them have surfaced on YouTube. Here is a list of seven-must watch films from the other Korea.
‘The Flower Girl’ (1972) Considered to be one of the most successful propagandist films from North Korea, with its writer being none other than Supreme Leader Kim il Sung. It speaks of the heroine’s struggles during the Japanese occupation of the country.
‘Centre Forward’ (1978) Sports play a major role in North Korean society. The country won two gold medals, three silvers and two bronzes at the Rio Olympics, and their stunning defeat of Italy to reach the quarter finals of the 1966 World Cup is still part of football lore. In Centre Forward, the protagonist Cha In-son overcomes his personal and professional difficulties to become a better football player. Inspirational despite being propagandist, the movie reinstates the truth that good cinema can emerge from anywhere.
‘Pulgasari’ (1985) The best-known of the seven films made by Shin Sang-ok during his abduction period is a tribute to the Japanese kaiju, or monster, genre. (Kim Jong-il was reportedly a fan of the best-known kaiju outside Japan, Godzilla). A blacksmith who is jailed by a tyrannical king creates a monster doll out of rice. The doll is fuelled by his daughter’s blood. The monster, who loves eating metal, goes on a rampage against the oppressive regime that is exploiting the peasants. The production was assisted by technicians from Japan’s legendary Toho studio, which has produced several kaiju films, including Godzilla.
‘Hong Kil Dong’ (1986) Another exceptional addition to the North Korean cinema canon has to be this adaptation of a folk legend that has its roots in the tales of Robin Hood. Hoong is trained in kung fu by a monk who saves him from bandits. Hong uses his skills to save the oppressed and fight against tyranny. The movie plays out like an entertainer despite its propagandist flavour.
‘A Traffic Controller on Crossroads’ (1986) If you want a movie that shows the daily rigours of North Korean life, there is nothing better than A Traffic Controller on Crossroads. Through the actions of a beautiful traffic controller, the movie upholds the values of gender quality and dignity of labour. A simple movie that is well acted, it gives extraordinary insights into the North Korean way of life as well as their strategies for survival.
‘Urban Girl Comes to Get Married’ (1993) Strange as it sounds, this movie will give many Bollywood romances a run for their money. An attractive fashion designer comes to a village and falls in love with a duck farmer. Their romance symbolises the gap between urban and rural North Koreans.
‘Pyongyang Nalpharam’ (2006) If you have seen movies like Hapkido (1972) or Fist of Fury (1972), you will immediately love this movie that is once again about the Japanese occupation of Korea. The hero saves his country from the occupiers and also protects a sacred kung fu manual from them.