Isolationism and Agoraphobia: How a Cinematic Equipoise Between State and its People Reveals a Culture kept Concealed.


North Korea withhold an idiosyncratic cinematic movement, that, despite deriving from seemingly pablum narrative concepts, reveals far more about the nation than initially visualised. For a state so famously pertinacious in reputation, North Korea has led a sense of predictability that any iteration of media expelled from within, falls into fabrication of the truth, yet not in the traditional sense of fictionalization. North Korea’s fabrication of truth enacts a positing of structured cultural and congressional beliefs - opposing societal latitudinarianism. 64% of the planet’s countries progress through congressional and institutional freedom, within a democratic framework (the US, famously). North Korea does not. The sovereign state is so undoubtedly restrictive in its agenda, that even the various congeries of citizen works produced within the state predictably act as propaganda, aiding the state, and incidentally aiding the statesmen within the state. There is, however, evidence of an equipoise that exists between the administration and the people. As such, does this loophole exploit the foundations of the state, or act in negotiation with a degree of appeasement on the infamous culture of concealment? This balance of forces has been categorised as a delegated ‘militarisation’ of cultural works; a ‘conscription’ in cultural enhancement - ‘Following the inception of the North Korean Federation of Literature and Arts in 1946, all creative writing in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was officially assigned to the realm of ‘socialist realism’. North Korean writers were proclaimed to be ‘soldiers on the cultural front’.

The historical manipulation of North Korea plays an exclusive role in its attitude towards intrusion from other countries - notably the west. The period of interregnum that occurred when war broke out with the diametrically opposed South Korea’s declaration of independence, resulted in the then united culture’s polarisation. This amounted to an invasion of 75,000 units of the North Korean People’s Army marching into the Republic of Korea. Exacerbating their relationship with North Korea, the US allowed one of their most ruthless generals, demagogue General Douglas MacArthur, to head the troops of the Southern Korean army, up past the 38th parallel and into Northern territory during the Korean War. This shaped the hostile relationship the US and North Korea retain at present. With Russia representing the North in a cloak-and-dagger approach of providing weaponry and soldiers, we see the US (distinguished as the UN) parry this in the South. The world powers were criticised for unilaterally treating the Koreans as pawns during this microcosmic conflict, reflective of the political tensions between the East and West across the iron curtain. After MacArthur’s rampageous celerity in attempting to additionally invade China, China held no alternative but to interject and provide North Korea with support from across the Yalu River. The condign left disparity amongst the parties involved as this all occurred during a period of uncertainty surrounding the political structure of the entire planet, its countries and enclaves. With the shifting tide of capitalism over communism from Western to Eastern continents – subject to the Truman Doctrine – came a new era of development in industry, and subsequently - culture.

When considering North Korean cinema and literature, it’s notable that an unusually asymmetric attitude is held against the US by North Korea, especially in the realm of co-productions. It’s imperative to consider how in 1992 ‘The U.S cut the flow of money to North Korea’, an action used ‘in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the country’s nuclear program’. US production companies are the largest and most active cinematic collaborators on the planet, so their degradation by North Korea raises questions. Japan’s significant direct involvement in North Korea could explain their prosperity and success in cinematic access. Despite the fact that ‘relations between Japan and North Korea have been mostly defined by tension and distrust’, filmic evidence suggests otherwise. The settlement span of Japan (1910-1945) is a factor to be considered. A sense of ‘willful acceptance’ of Japanese culture became evident in North Korea, forming a social equilibrium. This created a unparalleled connection through acculturation.

This double standard is represented with cinematic clarity. Japan’s position of cinematic equipoise with North Korea is shown in the production of several North Korean films – primarily the infamous Pulgasari (1985). This film was not only inspired by Japanese works such as Godzilla (1954), but one that used the same production company, Toho (those who worked on the special effects for the original). This film was released 31 years after Godzilla, yet still drew attention to the culturally enigmatic relationship. Whether this decision to produce a response to Japan’s Godzilla was a result of proselytization, or purely a following of fashion, it highlights one possible explanation to the question of how North Korea evolved culturally, but also how it remains so strongly in its formative communist regime. Russia’s communist influence is fortified in the nation, through the amass of totalitarian ideals.

Where Pulgasari acts as seemingly nugatory propaganda for benefits of the nation’s social policies and progression, the propaganda is noticeably inverted - outward facing, per se. A synopsis encapsulates this as ‘In feudal Korea, during the Goryeo Dynasty, a king controls the land … subjecting the peasantry to misery and starvation ... creature springs to life … blacksmith's daughter names Pulgasari … Pulgasari, who fights with the peasant army overthrows the corrupt monarchy.’ This cognitive text is precisely marketed for and targeted at the West – whilst it acts as an independent device of entertainment within North Korea – it accumulates a perception of North Korea as ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘anti-dictatorial’. Selective Exposure becomes prominent here.

Pulgasari was controversially achieved through the successful abduction of Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee in 1976 - two renowned South Korean directors. When Kim Jong-Il imprisoned the pair for 3 years, he allowed them to reunite with one foisted condition - they produce films for North Korea. Their success in South Korea made them an asset for their communist neighbour, who wanted to export their national cinema onto the World Stage. This controversial moment created complexities in question of ownership of the films, due to this external influence. South Korean directors would naturally be less familiarised with North Korean culture compared to the country’s own directors - so how much of the North Korea we see in these films represents genuine representation, and how much is categorised within the subjective ‘grey zone’? Can we truly consider these films ‘North Korean’ and what algorithm – if any – can desensitise the influence these directors have lifted from their homeland? It’s an area yet to be explored, and yet cannot be divulged without tangible supplementary materials from North Korea itself.

Of the few films exported from North Korea, several do stand out as iconic and implicit in representing the veiled nation. The Schoolgirl’s Diary (Jang In-Hank, 2007) is one example. Although the film was exported from North Korea in 2006 and exhibited in France in 2007, ‘according to Radio Free Asia, the movie has been banned in North Korea in July, 2016.’ The film’s tergiversation may have been what kept the film buoyant in the initial stages of distribution - but it’s uncertain what caused this roll-back motion imposed on access to the film. It offers an insight into the film’s potential betrayal of the country’s standards of film production.

The borderline-oneiric tale conveys a ‘conventional film’ and linear structure (of Western standards). The film follows Kim Su-ryeon, a ‘teenaged Naïve everygirl who is upset that her scientist father is never around and is frustrated that he has failed to obtain a doctorate, which would allow the family to move out of their ramshackle house and into a fancy apartment.’ This narrative is especially relatable to practices in countries such as China and Taiwan, who are known, culturally, for the pressurisation on subsequent generations to partake in the sciences as an adequate educational route: a way to globalise the value of the nation’s citizens.

Thereafter, is the line ‘Eventually, Su-ryeon's father makes a breakthrough of some kind and she realizes the importance of selfless devotion to the State’ . The narrative climax is one which implies, and as such, devises that any citizens deviating from state interests will encounter parlous consequences. It’s a message which has direct impact on the concept of ‘National Agoraphobia’ – national fear of entrapment. The resulted Agoraphobia primarily derives from isolationism: the idea that living internally and minimising external interactions benefits the nation’s growth. North Korea strive for isolationism, something which has drastically affected the culture and is apparent throughout their films.

Only two other North Korean films were released at Cannes Film Festival the same year as The Schoolgirl’s Diary. These films are what could be considered ‘sanctioned films’, a term coined to define a film that’s been given a certain degree of freedom within its production, and procure benefits for ‘progression of the state’. Although this is true with The Schoolgirl’s Diary, the congeries of information available currently make it fickle to filter through what is reliable in understanding the film, and what is not. The surreptitious appearance of some of these particular films is questionable in relation to this positing of ‘a degree of freedom of expression’. In the case of The Schoolgirl’s Diary, the reason for its banning has not been resolved, but delving into the film and looking at correlations between the themes and the country’s social policies, does hint at possible reasons. Elements such as the use of a female protagonist, the dangerous environment (house fire) and the depiction of more deprived conurbations may have caused unrest in state agendas, and opposed the ‘utopian’ vision purported by the nation.

North Korean film aesthetics manipulate a simulacrum that fractures our direction to the truth regarding the nation’s political and social infrastructure. In The Schoolgirl’s Diary and a film titled On the Green Carpet (Rim Chang-bom, 2001), there is a noticeably outdated style - in relation to Western standards. The music in On the Green Carpet appears almost as an homage to the easy-listening music of 60s soap opera with hints of Bossa Nova music from Brazil, also popularised during this time. Although it could be argued that all films are timeless – when considering the technology available to a culture at a particular moment in time – it must be something that’s considered in assessing the nation’s development. This is especially true where there is little reliable data to assess from other factors available. Could these films be anomalies of the overall film industry in North Korea? North Korea are developed - but perhaps their interest in retrospective styles in film is not a result of stylistic decision making, but something that’s been absorbed as an effect of isolationism in North Korea. In the case of North Korea, we experience a physical closing of borders, but an isolation in the lack of outward access to culture as well - a far more objurgated approach comparable to President Warren G. Harding’s less severe ‘return to normalcy’ in the US in 1919.

The acting style in On the Green Carpet is outdated and theatrical, with camera framing rarely drawing in close to character expressions or body language. We’re distanced from the action as the spectator, so even when we do ascertain access to this enigmatic culture, we’re held back.

Former leader, Kim Jong Il, and his love of film (specifically 1960s James Bond films) has creatively influenced the nation. In On the Green Carpet, you can see the influence drawn from the opulent romantic aspects of diffused ‘Hollywood’ lighting in James Bond, drawn from films such as Dr No (Terence Young, 1962) and Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964). His love of film has played a significant role in his influencing of culture, through the cultural reflexes in response to his actions. Kim Jong Il and his subordinates’ access to external materials clearly differs from the nation’s access, and as such, manipulates accurate representation.

In Kim Jong Il’s infamous book ‘On the Art of the Cinema’, the blurb states ‘Cinema is now one of the main objects on which efforts should now be concentrated in order to conduct the revolution in art and literature’ - a statement with a militaristic and dictatorial understanding of the medium - the finesse and idea of culture ‘implemented’ as a political policy or agenda. His desire for a ‘revolution’ likely stems from North Korea’s lack in global presence prior to this point, and reveals the origins of his aims to outsource filmmaking to their more socially-apt counterparts in South Korea.

The film is set during the May Day Mass Games in the capital, Pyongyang. With little detailing on the film’s origins, encouragement of proactive cultural participation and societal involvement suggests it’s a propaganda piece. This altruism that Kim Jong Il wished to embed, his son, Kim Jong Un, now posits. The word ‘revolution’ appears three times in the blurb, signifying this instrumental focus evidenced on change, as well as the use of film text as ‘a powerful and ideological weapon for the revolution.’

The Flower Girl (Hak Pak, Ik Kyu Choe, 1972) is a film renowned in North Korean cinema. It exists as another monolithic text, one that acts as a recognition of the effects Japanese occupation of the state had on internal cultural innovation. It was coined ‘the best film ever made in North Korea’ but this could be ‘an Overly Narrow Superlative given the limitations of cinema in a dirt-poor Stalinist dictatorship’. The film is ‘Set in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. The plot follows the story of Kotpun (Hong Yong-hee) a young woman who sells flowers in the streets of her village. Her mother, a widow, is effectively a slave, trapped into unending service to the evil Pae family. Mr. and Mrs. Pae are the local landowners, who exploit and oppress the villagers, and who are collaborators with the Japanese.’ The village acts as a microcosm of the country's political leaning (at least from the perspective of the proletariats), with the village officials acting as the oppressive Japanese legion. It reveals a great deal on not only North Korean culture, but the mindset of Sung during the time in which he composed this story.

The popularity of this film within North Korean culture, as well as its success on a global scale, highlights the importance and prominence of that period of time within the country - a powerful ‘weapon’ in the shaping of the culture. The film is ‘based on the revolutionary opera reportedly written by Kim Il-sung while imprisoned in Jilin prison in the 1930s, The Flower Girl has become the embodiment of the anti-Japanese struggle and helped elevate the film’s star Hong Yong-hee to the status of a god in her native country.’ Although this film acts independently, it’s an homage and direct idolisation of the works of Kim Il Sung, the leader at the time. As such, this film coherently relates to the agendas of the government, especially in a time of ‘revolution in literature and art’ proposed by Sung himself. This cultural reclamation correlates with the prosperity of the country as the economy recovered. As the people felt monetary growth per capita, they accumulated an avid interest in the world of film and Sung’s other avocations. This enacts cultural reflexivity.

The film conforms wholly to the films of the East during this time. As stated in an article by North Korean Films - ‘To anyone familiar with Communist films from China in the 1950s, ‘60s and (to a certain extent) ’70s, the plot will seem entirely familiar.’ We see the protagonist ‘Indebted to an evil landlord (a stock character that can be found in countless movies of this period)’. As such, the film becomes lost in archetypal genre work - but does this make it propaganda? Not necessarily. There are a plethora of films in Western culture that adhere to conventional character types, supplemented by typecasting - this is seemingly the case in North Korea as well. ‘[The Flower Girl] was iconic enough that a picture of Hong Yong-hee as Kotpun used to be on the North Korean one-won note’ and so Hong Yong-Hee became a national treasure. Arguably, films akin to The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2014) are pro-capitalism - but can these be considered propaganda pieces? We have to bear in mind several factors: the freedom of the people within that particular sub-market of media; the influence government has had on culture (indoctrination of the people); the funding provided for the film; and the importance of historical and external exposure to films across a series of generations.

A compendium of films from North Korea do all point to one primary narrative - evil oppressors enacting serfdom on helpless citizens. This could be construed as an impressive web of propaganda dressed as ‘surreptitious filmmaking’, but could, again, solely be due to selective exposure - ‘what these people have had access to’. Questioning this, as the adaptation of The Flower Girl is from Sung’s own work, does this become a secondary form of indoctrination? It’s something which South Korea deemed ‘communist propaganda’ as ‘The Flower Girl and six other North Korean films were "not favouring anti-ROK sentiments" in regards to national security laws.’

The year the film was produced and exhibited, 1972, was a notably progressive year. Darren C. Zook states in his article, that ‘There was a pronounced turn toward a unique North Korean style of socialism, represented by two particular features of the constitution: (1) the articulation of juche ideology as the guiding set of principles for North Korea’ (2) the elimination of elements from the 1948 Constitution that were clearly borrowed from other socialist legal systems, particularly from the Soviet Union.’ This principle of Juche would eventually become a grounded factor in post-occupation Neo-North Korea, but is especially reflected in the revitalisation of Sung’s operatic text The Flower Girl. The film tackles the agoraphobia within the country during wartime, through the villagers, helpless and entrapped by the powers that be. The protagonist believes her brother Chol-ryong is dead, but at the crescendo of the film, a triumphant deus ex machina plays out onscreen as he arrives with the anti-Japanese ‘Revolutionary Army’ to ward off the village’s oppressors. This film not only reveals a striving for Sung’s self-reliance in North Korea, but also an extraordinary yearning for a reevaluation, and even rewriting, of history. This was subsequent to Sung having previously relied heavily on China and Soviet Russia for protection. Sung clearly yearned for a rewriting in the sense of North Korea’s own culmination of the liberation of their country, without a suppliant reliance on external forces (the West) warding off Japan. The film stems from Sung’s own wants and regrets, but the reintroduction of it as a classic is what addresses its contemporary relevance. The contemporary relevance being in the form of a reminder of the values of Juche and the regaining of a national identity. In this sense, North Korean cinema is absolutely akin to movements of Third Cinema.

Comrade Kim Goes Flying (Nicholas Bonner, Anja Daelemans, Gwang-hun Kim, 2012) is prominent and acts as a ‘conversation with collaboration’, positing the idea of proposed reformation that stems from the 1990s economic crisis. Zook states ‘This sense of ideological purity and self-proclaimed superiority put the North Korean state in an awkward and somewhat precarious position when its economy began to collapse in the early 1990s, bringing about tremendous pressure for reform.’ Comrade Kim Goes Flying inexplicably and indiscreetly presents itself as a collaborative effort with Belgium and Britain, one that North Korea have utilised to cater for two issues within stagnated progression of their country. These issues surround the lack of exportation and globalisation of Korean cultural-based products, and the combatting of controversy in reaction to their ethically questionable social policies - looking specifically at socio-political categorisation. This was established when Kim Il Sung reported to the “Fifth Korean Workers’ Party Congress in 1970 that the people could be classified into three political groups: a loyal “core class,” a suspect “wavering class,” and a politically unreliable “hostile class.”

During the economic crisis ‘North Korea’s GNP decreased by roughly 35% from $23.2 billion in 1990 to $12.6 billion 1998.’ - a colossal decline and one which could have led to this embracing of Western influence in Comrade Kim Goes Flying. However, a more prominent agenda is displayed here. The Guardian described the film as ‘North Korea as you've never seen it before’, due to the presentation of it as a ‘light, refreshing, fun rom-com about ‘girl power’. The film, therefore, suggests an alternative approach in tackling the country’s external reputation. The country is ‘a land known for being a starving Stalinist state on the edge of the world, not for producing fluffy chick flicks’, and as such, stands out almost as another propaganda piece, despite Western investments. However, Nick Bonner (the British director involved) ‘firmly rejects any suggestion that Comrade Kim is Pyongyang propaganda’.

Any collaboration involving Western superpowers was unforeseen, and a collaboration in particular involving the US was highly unlikely after, in 2002, the US dubbed North Korea “part of an "axis of evil" in a stand-off between the West and North Korea” Despite this, the film exists, and is very much an instrumental piece in discovering North Korea from a virtual perspective. One particular element I drew from the film was the transnational nature of its execution. The film seems to act as a representation of ‘mutuality’ - North Korea perhaps sanctioning this project as a statement of strength and recognition of matched power with Belgium and Britain - symbolically similar to the construction of the Ryugyong Hotel. This power, of course, is recognised through their access to Nuclear energy.

The film was relatively successful globally, especially for a North Korean take on romantic comedy. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012, as well as several Eastern-based film festivals. This posits the idea that North Korean cinema has the potential to be exported globally - similar to that of Japanese or Taiwanese cinema. Where self-sufficiency is achieved proficiently, the internalised effect could also be where North Korea struggle. Their chief exports centre around coal, ballistic missiles, arms factories, textiles and nuclear reactors - all tangible products/services that generally don’t reflect a culture accurately. Film is one element that’s becoming recognised by North Korean government officials as an important part in Kim Il Sung’s ‘revolution in art and literature’. North Korea could be leaving a state of belated ‘Industrial Revolution’, and that this is why there’s a lack in substantialism in North Korean cinema. The film, incidentally, reflects upon this idea. The coal-miner status of Comrade Kim Yong Mi draws attention to this move away from industry as she realises her dream of becoming a trapeze artist - contrary to the narratives displayed in propaganda films of the 1960s. The film has an interesting and borderline ‘fantastical’ approach to the worldwide issues surrounding geographical mobility within industries, but also socio-economic movement within class struggles. It acts as a milestone in being ‘the first Western-financed fiction feature made entirely in North Korea'. - a surprising feat.

The film has a clear ‘on the nose’ quality about it. The acting is reminiscent of the qualities in Golden Age Hollywood of the 1920s, with colours of Technicolour film of the 1960s. A dated look is existent. The cast are solely North Korean, with the main actress having been a coal-miner preceding production - a signification of a national move towards ‘art culture’. Kim’s father states ‘Keep your head out of the clouds, and be sure to keep your feet on the ground’, a statement that encapsulates the conflicts at the time, surrounding disparity between the older and younger generations over the questionable value of liberal arts.

The People’s Republic of North Korea have existed throughout history in a predominantly militaristic presence, especially following World War Two, and because of this - have not yet visualised their potential as global players within Film and Media. The reliance on countries perceived as ‘global powers’ not only shaped culture within the state, but shaped formal government social policies too, through Juche. Where this has formulated an active protest against acculturation and American Culture Imperialism specifically, it has purported the idea of cultural independence, similar to that achieved by Third Cinema of Latin America. Although North Korea is depicted in the West as a country wrought with anomie, the latter and far more progressive films produced in North Korea have revealed a much more opulent and utopian state - a parrying of the US ‘white picket fence’ American Dream. The ‘American Dream’ is often proven artificial or unable to be worked with stability into a functioning democratic economy, and as such, a communist country may well struggle to integrate the same ideals - Juche. In spite of this, North Korea’s seemingly imminent progression toward a more open and progressive relationship with the UN and global community could be the key to development of an additional competitive film market, and one which could prove that ‘cooperation with the West really is possible, at least in cinema’.