Friday, August 05, 2022

[Movies Review] DPRK Movies, Or How Great Is Our General!

The first 10 movies I will be presenting here, were completely random, maybe except for "The Flower Girl". I just watched what generator actually shown. That's why those are movies mainly from the 80s and 90s. With the next 10, I will try to be more selective (maybe Bulgasari, who knows), however I don't promise I will watch "The Sea of Blood" once again.
OK, let's parachute into the arms of a... tractor driver.
I will not write a detailed review of each movie, because some are painfully the same, repeating over and over the same motif. However, each is different to the point of introducing new approaches I will talk about later.
1. The Story of a Blooming Flower (1992)

This movie tells the story of one florist's struggles to create a begonia hybrid which would symbolize peace, happiness, freedom and most of all - the Great Leader. After years of despair, on the verge of giving up, motivated solely by the hardships that the Leader had to suffer himself, he managed to create it. His gratitude was shown in the name of a new flower - Kimjongilia. And here is where the story gets interesting. It is based on real events, when the florist, Shimozawa Masahide, moved by the Juche ideals, tried to create the flower that best represented it. The story moves between Japan and DPRK, and the audience gets the impression that Japanese only dream of some kind of revolution that will turn their country into socialist paradise. Which, again, has parallels with the real history. In the 50s and 60s many Koreans who were living in Japan were lured into North Korea with the promise of egalitarian society. However, no one told them about the songbun system and quickly those with ties to relatives in Japan, were being thrown into "reeducation camps".

2. Myself in the Distant Future (1997)
The story is not particularly complicated, however it drills some fundamental propaganda ideas into the audience. Our heroine is a hardworking plasterer from the county, and the male lead is a wealthy, but lazy guy from Pyeongyang (supposedly young but he looks 50, but OK). After the first meeting, he tries to woo her to come with him to the city, however she firmly believes that her destiny is to stay in the county and do her work here. Besides, she has a low opinion of him - lazy bum still living with his parents (who are also not happy that he wastes his youth). So, to prove himself in the eyes of Suyang, Shinjun tries to change himself into a hardworking member of the society (he even drives the tractor that runs on coal - yes you read that right). However it seems to not create any romantic change in Suyang. She is, however full of ideas to make work seems like a past-time and not a necessity. When their combine harvester broke down, she invented a contest - who will collect the most grain in the shortest period of time. So, naturally, this makes the whole situation light and funny.
The propaganda is strong with this one. We have to remember that in 1997, North Korea was in the middle of the worst famine, so called "Arduous March" just to make the people believe they participate in a hardships similar to the ones the Great General suffered. And in 1997 we get a film that shows fields full of crops.
3. A Broad Bellflower (1987)
The movie tells the story of two sisters living in the county and working hard with the community to make the environment better. If they have to make some repairs (like with a case of a house), the people gather together and try to find a solution and then work on in. One scene was probably left by accident, but made the movie even more real - one meeting is done around one candle, because there is no electricity. Such moments remind the viewer about the power cuts, however the movie played it as something quite natural. When the boyfriend of one of the sisters tries to convince her to go with him to Pyeongyang to find a job and be successful, she rejects him and stays instead in the village. Worth adding is the fact that Oh Miran who plays Jin Songrim, the main heroine of this story, was awarded the honorary title of "People's Actor". The humble bellflower that grows only high in the mountains and is seen by no one, and admired by no one, is a subtle allusion to the hardworking people whose work is seen by no one importing, but they make their village beautiful, just like the bellflower makes its'.
4. Flower in Snow (2011)
I'll be honest - this is my favorite movie among those 10. But not for the reason as obvious as the plot or acting. It's because what underlays it all. It tells the story of a female protagonist who is chosen to replace a manager of a quilt factory who resigns. And he has a good reason to resign - the factory is barely holding itself together. The short fix could help it, but it would hold nearly 10 years. And after those 10 years what? Another fix for 10 years? Our heroine decides on something profoundly radical - to demolish the old factory and build it anew. This is the echo of Lenin's radicalism and revolution that's needed. She is of course sneered at by the old guys, however women in the village are firmly behind her. This also signifies that the old ideas that worked in the past, do not work now, and the country needs new solution. The women of the village gather and they manually cut down trees for the factory, and also manually transport them near the building site. In the meantime, our heroine adopts a bunch of children who were wondering, starved and dirty. This causes a rift between her, her mother and one guy. 
One day the workers are shocked that he army took all the tree bales because "army needs, army takes". However, after much pleading, explaining the situation (that women cut down and transported the trees with bare hands IN THE DAMN WINTER), the commander decides to give the bales back. From then on, the work moves smoothly, and tadaam! - we have a new quilt factory. 
And then the main reason behind restoring the factory comes to light now. One day, the Great Leader visited the factory and stroking one quilt said that it produces superb quilts and they should be in every house in DPRK. The mother of the leading lady took the quilt that was touched by the Great Leader and treated it as a relic of some kind. She planned to give that quilt as the wedding gift. However her daughter decided she will not marry, but become mother of those rescued children. And also the "mother" of the village.
Just beautiful. 
5. Ask Yourself (1988)
This movie gives is one more female protagonist, who decided in her youth to be a cattle herder. Her sisters stayed in Pyeongyang and sometimes try to entice her to join them in the capital, where the life is easy. This puts a seed of doubt in the heart of San Mae; she starts struggling with the possibilities of how much good she could be doing in Pyeongyang, instead of here. And here, a ghost of old Korean legends as well the story of King Lear floats above the plot, because San Mae's farmer leader's daughters downright refuse to come back to the backward village, when they have their careers in the capital. So he, obviously, thinks that he failed as parent to raise their kids in the spirit of Juche and revolution. San Mae also questions the fact that there is no system of awards for a job well done and of course one worker mansplaiing it to her that this is job is to benefit the country and that alone should be seen as reward.

6 . A Forest is Swaying (1982)
Oh, definitely one of my "favorites". The desperate man against the harsh elements of the North Korean weather. The time settings are around after the Korean War, and our soldier returns to the village to see it completely destroyed, and worse - also the hills are heavily deforested, bringing the subtle analogy of the wound, of the scar between two Koreas. So the soldiers wants to inform the wife of his dead comrade about his fate, but it turns out - she is also dead with only daughter left behind. The man decides to take care of her. So far, the plot is as thin as the rice paper, but one day, a change comes to the village - the ex soldier tries to plant a pine forest to cover the ugly scar of the carpet bombing (*side note: US dropped more ordinance like bombs and napalm on Korea than during the whole Second WW, Sometimes pilots were complaining that they have nothing more left to bomb. We should be questioning if this fits the definition of genocide*), Let's say, re-pining the hills was a strenuous work and the pines were dying. Maybe because he didn't use the only Chris that matters in the neverending battles of Chrises that is Chris Pine.
Ok, fangirling ends. One day to the village arrives a young woman who specializes in agriculture. She decided that the soil here is not supportive to pines, and all of the soldiers will be in vain. But (not so long) story short - it turns out that the little saplings are starting to grow and in the moment of, I say "romantic" the soldier and the woman almost see the hills reforested again and murmuring in the wind. Again, a very simple allusion to the growth of the whole country and its economy. The rest of the plot is not worth mentioning.

7. When We Pick Apples (1971)
Oh, who doesn't love this film? It is so subtle, so enchanting, I almost felt the scent of those apples in my room. It is set in Pukcheong, a region famed for its apples, so of course every village is collectively responsible for the orchard well-being. The crates of Pukcheong apples are delivered to the market because they are highly sought after. Our main heroine, Jang Ok, comes from the capital full of ideas on how to even improve the harvest. She also mobilizes the women, is not afraid to stand up the the village leader just to defend her ideas stemming right from the Juche idea of self-reliance. However her sister, Gye Ok is her complete opposite, and worse - now that she is engaged, she feels she doesn't need to work at all. However as the situation progresses, Jang Ok realizes that not only implementing Juche ideals i the life of the village is important, but also self criticism, hence she starts self-criticizing moments.
One poignant moment of the film comes during Jang Ok's ardent speech to everyone assembled, but mostly to the ones who will see this movie: that the apples are not mere fruit, they are Juche  in the living form, they are the country of apples, and when one of the workers wanted to discard the fallen ones, Jang ok tells them the story of how the Great General himself visited this orchard giving his much needed advice, And even though he was offered the most beautiful apples, he reached for those that were lying beneath the tree. 
That's wht then need to take care of every apple - either on branch or below the tree.
Curously, no one in this movie eats any apple.

8 . The Flower Girl (1972)

  How to describe he tragic complexity of this movie without giving too much spoilers? Oh right, I forgot I don't care. The movie takes place under the Japanese colonization, with all of its brutality - it shows the landlords who collaborate with Japanese and are cruel, Japanese people who don;t want to even buy a flower from Koppum (my mind asked where does she get such fine blooming peonies and other flowers in the middle of the winter) but it lasted about two seconds because IT'S NOT THE POINT, The movie is long, it originally was created as an opera written by the Great Leader himself and later turned into movie by his cinephile son. It was also shown in China and was a huge hit there.
Koppum has a blind sister and a heavily sick mother, their father is dead and the brother is imprisoned. Not even modern SK makjang could come with such a settings. They work at the Japanised landlord and are treated as vermin. Koppum tries to gain some meager money through selling flowers but it is still not enough. And that's the plot. Actually it's empty, Koppum illegally, with flowers, is distributing a bulletin of revolution that starts boiling and boiling. We can see dimly lit taverns, private homes, other places where men (only men) discuss about the ideas presented in those short booklets. 
One day, it seems that all the problems disappear - Koppum brother comes back from the prison and immediately starts organizing the guerilla fighters. I would advise you all who will watch this movie to notice how he is dressed and then look how Kim Il Seong was portrayed dressed in the winter, Just saying.
As we can see, the hardship doesn't dampen Koppum will to carry out the secret messages of the revolution. Her most beautiful flowers are also red.

Now is the time to mention some other, maybe bizarre, to the western consumer feature of the North Korean movies. Songs. Everyone sings, or the song is in the background. Even when there's no electricity, usually female is bright enough to propose a song. And somehow magically a guitar or an accordion appears in the hands of the tired miners or farmers (who cut the crops by sickle) and they sing a song about the fatherland, Great Leader and beautiful Joseon. Only the benevolence of the Great Leader brings the fortune to the land.

 It's even on the Korean banknote that no one's using. Needles to say, I collected them all :
9. A Traffic Controller on Crossroads (1986)
This is the lightest and more pure movie out of the 10 I watched for the first batch. The propaganda is not so heavy like in previous movies, but instead, the movie shows the society. The society in which everyone works for the common good. Mistakes do happen (like not abiding the traffic lights), but we quickly learn that the driver didn't do it on purpose, the plot is as thin as spider's piss, so I Have no material to analyze i depth, however the movie is rather sweet, seeing that everyone helps each other. It's as if this movie was a challenge to so-called "western" countries, where no one knows their neighbors, do not organize common actions to beautify their surroundings, etc.
And of course, our ladies have lots of work to control the immense traffic in Pyeongyang.

10. Hong Kil Dong (1986)

So, I wanted to end the cycle with some historical movie. The only right choice was Hong Kil Dong. Because, I think, you are not ready for Bulgasari yet. I need to ease you into wonderful vortex of North Korean movies. Fear not, there will be also a war movie. Now's the time to unfollow me.
I think everyone knows the myth about Hong Gildong, who took from the rich and gave to the poor. Now, this story both fits the socialsistic view about getting rid of the class of rich landlords (kulaks, yangbans, whatever), and contradicts it. Because the communist revolution was thought to be carried by proletariat. Not peasants. And In Korea, there was no proletariat. This short digression serves as the background story when Hong Gildong threatens the wealthy yangban that their time will soon come to the end. Of course Gildong and his merry company could not be tolerated. The forces dispatched by yangbans and magistrates to contain Hong Gildong's actons fail. And here we discover the real gem hidden inside the plot - the fighting scenes. It was an obvious copy from the Hong Kong martial art cinema, but the copy got tangled up in the wires and instead we are given some of the most funny scenes in the whole movie.

Discouraged that in his native Joseon the revo... I mean, the fight against the wealthy cannot be won, the band embarks on a ship to look for a country where they could live as equals, without troubles and problems.


We will never know and it's killing me inside.
One thing I need to add and I forgot to write it in the first version published. Except for 3 movies here, it's the woman who plays the main role. But does she? Women in such movies are rather vehicles for ideas, the embody the ideal of "Mother". And interestingly - even her innovative plans need to be approved by a male. So this feminisation of North Korean cinema is a superficial one. The foundations are still deeply confucianists.
Be prepared for the next 10 movies.