“Remember to cry and show bigger movements!” Behind the scenes of North Korea’s film industry

by Gabriel Mizrahi on May 31, 2013

A walk through the Pyongyang Film Studios (aka Cholliwood, the best pop-culture portmanteau ever) tells you a great deal about the tone of North Korea’s legendary film industry. The menacing dragons hanging from the imperial Japanese sets, snarling and snaking, talons drawn and unmistakably evil; the hedonistic haunts of the South Korean sets, drowning in bawdy movie posters of American films, the impassive hazel eyes of “The Seven Year Itch” poster gazing down, eyebrows painted, lips pouty — you get

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the idea. But the choice in poster is perfect, isn’t it? It was only two years after the 1953 armistice

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that Billy Wilder tempted the dutiful Tom Ewell with Marilyn’s charms. It wasn’t Wilder’s best, but people watched, and laughed — after all, aren’t these the shenanigans cinema is meant to capture?

Not quite.

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Enjoy, for a moment, one of the more obscure arguments by the DPRK’s chief film critic, who once reminded his cadre of A-list Cholliwood writers that

The important mission of literature and art is to serve our Party’s revolutionary cause of revolutionizing and working-classizing the whole of society.

Revolutionizing and working-classizing all the members of society is the

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historic task of the working-class party after the triumph of socialist revolution. It will be impossible to continue the revolution and succeed in the building of socialism and communism unless the remnants of outdated ideas are eradicated from the minds of the working people after the overthrow of the exploiting class …

The most important thing in training people to be true revolutionaries, communists, is to implant deep in their hearts unreserved loyalty to the Party and the revolution. Our literature and art must pay primary attention to this matter and make a strong impression in dealing with questions arising in fostering loyalty to the Party and the revolution …

If they visit places

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where they can be in the thick of things and delve into the lives of the working people who are implementing the Party’s policy devotedly and are making incredible successes and innovations, writers will be able to discern important questions, such as what is the meaning of the most worthwhile life in our revolutionary era and how one must cherish and express loyalty to the Party and the revolution …

For instance, if you are to take up the subject on the revolutionization and working-classization of people, you must pick and give a profound exposition of one aspect after another of those problems which are raised in revolutionizing the people in question in the first place and

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then their families, sub-workteams, workteams and, finally, their workshops.

Some people do not grieve at seeing valuable equipment and materials of the state being spoilt by exposure to the rain and snow. If you depict their life in depth from the point of view of revolutionization, it will greatly help the revolutionary education of people.

Kim Jong Il, “Let Us Create More Revolutionary Films Based on Socialist Life,” talk to writers and film directors, June 18, 1970

With that in mind, enjoy this clip from The Great North Korean Picture Show, the most fascinating glimpse into the making of North Korean cinema I’ve seen. You can access the full movie on Vimeo. And read up on the unique making of the film. The ambiguity of filming in North Korea runs deep.

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