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MAY 19, 2000 VOL. 27 NO. 19 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Asiaweek Pictures
From the top, A Bellflower, a homage to the simple values of country life; Ten Zan, a made-for-export action flick that flopped; Hong Kil Dong, Robin Hood, North Korean style, with an anti-Japanese theme; and My Self in the Distant Future, which portrays a land of plenty

Peering Into A Closed World
North Korea -- seen through its movie industry

They looked like movies from another planet and another time. Most of the eight films from North Korea that played at Italy's Udine Festival of Far East Film carried propaganda messages that were so heavyfooted they would seem out of place even in China. Films such as A Bellflower and My Self In The Distant Future encouraged the country's citizens to change their diet, suffer poverty in the name of progress, work hard to develop new kinds of tractor fuel, and, above all, praise the Great Leader - first Kim Il Sung and now his son, Kim Jong Il.

These were rarely seen cinematic oddities, and, unsurprisingly, screenings at the small but influential Udine festival, tucked away in beautiful northern Italy, were packed with interested spectators. They weren't disappointed. Aside from providing an opportunity to peer into North Korea's secretive world, the films offered some engaging and sentimental moments amid the propaganda. There was even a bizarre James Bond-style North Korean action movie - a misguided attempt to enter the international film market in the late-1980s.

Most critics were surprised to find the films at the festival at all. North Korea isn't known for its friendly dealings with the West, though, perhaps uncoincidentally, Italy had opened diplomatic ties with Pyongyang a few weeks before the event. In fact, German film-buff Johannes Schönherr, who put together the package, said the North Koreans were thrilled by the opportunity to have their movies seen in a foreign country. It all began when Schönherr, a former citizen of East Germany who specializes in the cinematically esoteric, encountered a lost-looking delegation of North Koreans at the Berlin Film Festival last year. "The vice president of the film export agency and his translator were in town to do business, but they were totally confused," he says. "They didn't want to go back to Korea without having succeeded in exporting anything. So when I offered to put together a program of films and hawk it around for them, they agreed instantly."

To make the selection, Schönherr was invited to the Korean Film Show in Pyongyang. He watched 25 movies in a week, and pared his final list down to eight that he thought would be accessible to Western viewers. Schönherr concluded that the most interesting films were made between 1985 and 1997. In the batch, he managed to find a few different genres. Alongside what Schönherr describes as "tractor romances," he came across a period piece and an army movie with some exceptional mass scenes of taekwondo. Sometimes his investigations would turn up a great scene in an otherwise tedious production. "I saw one where a woman powers a lighthouse with the dynamo that runs her bicycle lamp," he remembers.

My Self In The Distant Future (1997), directed by Jang In Hak, was one of the more obvious propaganda movies. A young man falls in love with the leader of a "Shock Brigade" of plasterers who are busy trying to modernize their home village. He visits the settlement to try and win her love by becoming a model worker, and then take her back to Pyongyang with him. The propagandist thrust of the storyline is that you should be happy where you were born, no matter how primitive the conditions. This theme supports the North Korean government's eagerness to prevent a surge of countryside migrants into the cities. While owning up to the fact that "every girl wants to go to Pyongyang," our heroine decides to carry on plastering.

Made two years into the famine that still grips the country, My Self In The Distant Future portrays a country burdened with an abundance of food. One British critic described it as the "ultimate grub's-up movie." Combine harvesters reap waving fields of ripe corn and everyone walks around looking hearty and carrying bulging bags of apples. There is a party where the host exhorts his guests "to eat their fill - and then come to the circus!" Food is certainly on the menu in more ways than one: A secondary theme is "eat potatoes, not rice" - a slogan designed to reinforce an official campaign to persuade the population to switch to the humble spud.

Hong Kil Dong is an entirely different affair. The 1986 historical drama is based on Korea's Robin Hood hero, Hong. In Kim Kil In's version of the story, the aristocratic-born Hong first espouses a primitive form of communism, attacking greedy landowners who are hoarding rice from the poor. But when Japanese ninja invade the country and steal the crown jewels, he puts all that behind him. His communism turns to unbridled nationalism, and he unites with his former enemies to fight the foreign menace. Hong Kil Dong is a martial-arts piece, albeit one with socialist characteristics. The fight scenes are quite good, playing out very much like old-fashioned Hong Kong kung-fu movies.

That's more that can be said for the truly lamentable Ten Zan, an actioner directed by Italian Ferdinando Baldi, who had the presence of mind to hide his involvement by using the pseudonym of Ted Kaplan. Ten Zan is an embarrassing attempt at making a movie for the Western market. Shot in North Korea, it features Western actors running purposelessly through a B-movie story about eugenics. The acting is worse than that of the propaganda movies, as is the plot. Oddly, Baldi chose to portray North Korea as some kind of futuristic society. "It was a conscious avoidance of reality," he later explained.

Most North Koreans have more reality than they can bear - which led many of the Udine viewers to wonder in discussions if Pyongyang moviegoers realize they are being dished up propaganda. Schönherr says he doesn't know - he did ask to see some of the movies with a North Korean audience, but was not allowed to do so. "Perhaps they just go and see them because they are told to," he offered.

One group of people at the festival who were less than impressed with the program was a delegation of directors from South Korea. Bemused by the fact that the movies were showing at all, they made a very public show of not going to see any. "These films have absolutely no cinematic value. I wonder why people want to see them," said one. They won't have to wonder forever. If the two Koreas finally become one, North Korea's outmoded cinema will probably be one of the first things to wither. Despite its propagandist tendencies, that would be a loss.

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