North Korea, Stranger than Fiction


From the rhetoric that’s been thrown around certain political circles of late, you’d think we were at the height of the Cold War, 1961. Yet in the real world a half-century later, any Communist threat is a very limited one. The Iron Curtain fell in a heap over two decades ago; the U.S. Communist Party hasn’t had any muscle since the 1930s. Economically, we’re in bed too deep with the People’s Republic of China to do more than wag a mildly disapproving finger at all their bad-boyfriend behavior re: human rights and industrial espionage.

The two countries most isolated by adherence to one form or another of Marxist-Leninist doctrine have both faced major changes for some time, as longterm charismatic leaders aged out of office. Those changes have already begun in Cuba, as Raul Castro lays groundwork for liberalization with the approval of brer Fidel, whose hand has been forced by illness.

But what about North Korea? This most repressive, secretive and Stalinist of modern nations has only grown more hostile toward international relations under Kim Jong-il, son and successor to “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung. Between them, they kept their World War II armistice-created Democratic People’s Republic rigidly off-limits to the outside world (even actual democracy South Korea, despite eternal calls for reunification) for 60-plus years.

Kim Jong-il’s recent demise, however, raised all kinds of questions about North Korea’s future. Will his own heir Kim Jong-un, a young (29-ish) man about whom very little is known, turn out to be more of the crazily autocratic same? Will life under his new rule improve conditions for a populace long in desperate need of foreign aid and economic growth? All that remains to be seen.

This development naturally re-ignites curiosity about just what it’s like inside a country sealed tight as a drum, its leaders and everyday citizens alike illuminated only by the testimonies those who’ve managed to escape.

Unlike South Korea, whose flourishing film industry has particularly attracted admiring attention abroad in recent years, North Korea’s own filmic output has long been designed solely for internal entertainment and propagandic uses. Yet Kim Jong-il was—among the portly despot’s many, variably credible enthusiasms, including alleged Olympic-level athleticism—a confessed avid fanboy who owned thousands of movies from around the world (most illegal for ordinary Koreans to see), and considered himself a “genius of cinema.”

Brit Daniel Gordon won extraordinary, unprecedented access to make A STATE OF MIND, which profiles two young Pyongyang girls as they undergo rigorous training to participate as gymnasts in The Mass Games, a colossal ‘socialist realism spectacular’ whose 100,000 or so participants do everything from roller skating to hula-hoop juggling—all in perfect choreographic synch.

This role was most notoriously demonstrated in 1985 with the completion of Pulgasari, an ideologically correct “answer” to Japan’s Godzilla flicks. Here, the monster was a Golem-like spirit summoned to destroy the evil capitalist landowners oppressing peasants in pre-socialist times. Deciding that none of the in-house talent was sufficient for his epic pet project, Kim Jong-il had spies kidnap leading South Korean director Shin-Sang-ok, who was forced to make this and several other features for his “patron” before fleeing to freedom.

While never made commercially available in the West, Pulgasari and other curios can be found by the industrious curio-seeker. It requires considerably less sleuthing, however, to discover Fandor’s own clutch of titles shedding light on the past and present of a nation still shrouded in mystery. All were produced by foreign filmmakers, but make use of insider interviews and state media artifacts.

A good place to start is N.C. Heikin’s Kimjongilia, a 2009 documentary that contrasts prime propagandistic kitsch—ginormous patriotic parades, maudlin patriotic dramas—with input from refugees who escaped for a better life elsewhere.

The latter speak of eating mice to survive in concentration camps where they were sentenced for crimes as ludicrous as “sounding capitalist”—a singer whose voice accidentally resembled a South Korean pop star’s—or simply being related to someone found guilty of something. (It is purportedly common to “purge three generations” by punishing entire families for one member’s offense.) Others relate experiences of torture, widespread starvation, and authoritarian brainwashing so extreme one man says he believed Kim Il-sung a living god “we thought didn’t pee.” Another, interviewed in silhouette for safety, opines of the future that, “Whatever chaos comes couldn’t be worse than the chaos under Kim Jong-il.” We shall see.

For an alternative, state-approved view, two more documentaries offer very different perspectives—though you might well read contradictory evidence between the lines. Brit Daniel Gordon won extraordinary, unprecedented access to make A State of Mind, which profiles two young Pyongyang girls as they undergo rigorous training to participate as gymnasts in The Mass Games, a colossal  “socialist realism spectacular” whose 100,000 or so participants do everything from roller skating to hula-hoop juggling—all in perfect choreographic synch.

Our irrepressible protagonists eagerly parrot the Party line, their life in the capital city seemingly prosperous and pleasant. But Gordon is quite aware that he’s only allowed to see part of the picture, which notably omits any glimpse of life in a countryside that’s suffered the brunt of recurrent famines and food rationing.

He was allowed to return a few years later for Crossing the Line, whose fascinating subject lives even higher on the North Korean food chain. That would be one James Dresno, a U.S. Army deserter who simply walked across the border in 1962 to escape court-martial. His adopted homeland couldn’t have been more delighted to have him, as the folksy Southerner proved quite willing to become a “coveted star of propaganda”—presumably in exchange for a life of comfort (and “comfort women”). He played the “evil American” in numerous melodramas, painted the U.S. as a land of corruption and hypocrisy, and praised his adopted country no end.

Crossing the Line is one of those documentaries that, like Errol Morris’ recent Tabloid, rivets largely because it’s a story told by an unreliable narrator. The more Dresno drawls on, the more he seems to be acting a part, one whose truthfulness several fellow American deserters (who’ve since repatriated) cast serious doubt on. He is, at the very least, a savvy opportunist with a penchant for histrionic emotional displays and rehearsed-sounding anecdotes. He’s quite a character—though you might feel like taking a long shower after 90 minutes of his company.

All these features offer vivid first-person commentaries reflecting in one way or another life in a land where the harsh realities that leak out provide stark contrast to government-sanctioned images of a happy collective workers’ paradise. Offering something else entirely—probably quite different from anything you’ve seen before—is Jim Finn’s hour-long The Juche Idea. This “docu-fiction” hour is a bizarre satirical melange so subtle you might miss the joke. On the other hand, you might well find yourself practically paralyzed with laughter.

Poking with a cinematic stick Kim Il-sung’s “juche” dogma re-branding Marxist-Leninist principals in his own image, the film combines actual propagandic songs, poems, pageants and motion picture epics with original materials that could quite easily pass for authentic state product.

Among them are the travails of a (fictive) South Korean filmmaker who travels north to revolutionize revolutionary media, with rather bewildering results. Most hilariously, there’s “instructional” footage providing English lessons in both Socialist and Capitalist lingo. A comedy of ideological absurdity that barely needs to exaggerate the compulsory wisdoms of past and future Kims, The Juche Idea offers faux indoctrination so sly you may well be able to fool any friends into thinking it’s the real thing.

Dennis Harvey is a featured contributor to Variety.

Get a Fandor Free Pass

Did you like this article?
Give it a vote for a Golden Bowtie


Keyframe is always looking for contributors.

"Writer? Video Essayist? Movie Fan Extraordinaire?

Fandor is streaming on Amazon Prime

Love to discover new films? Browse our exceptional library of hand-picked cinema on the Fandor Amazon Prime Channel.