“All our movies are filled with crying and sobbing. I didn’t order them to portray that kind of thing” – Kim Jong-Il
“The cinema occupies an important place in the overall development of art and literature. As such it is a powerful ideological weapon for the revolution and construction”; a quote by Kim Jong-Il from his 1987 essay “The Cinema and Directing“. The late North Korean leader had an unrelenting passion for cinema coursing through his veins. An infatuation which entailed a private collection of tens of thousands of videos and DVDs, several academic essays on film and its future, and a deep desire to improve his nation’s own cinematic productions. Kim Jong-il may have despised the Western world but he admired Hollywood.
Kim Jong-Il’s love affair with the art of cinema had begun long before his time as ‘Dear Leader’. Not unlike any ordinary young man, he liked action and horror, thrillers and comedies, sci-fi and drama: Kim was a movie ‘buff’. As South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-Ok commented “He liked all the women that most men like, he liked James Bond.” Indeed the North Korean leader did not simply like James Bond; he borderline idolised him. He saw every entry in the 007 canon; his favourite actor? Sean Connery. However on viewing his nation embodying the villainous enemy to his ‘hero’ in Die Another Day, the leader was heartbroken and “deeply insulted”.
As leader of North Korea his adoration for cinema grew further. Within his palace, he had an air conditioned vault filled with a collection of 15,000 to 30,000 VHS and DVDs. Kim Jong-il spent most of his free time absorbing the latest Hollywood offerings with Friday the 13th and Rambo ranked as his favourite movies of all time. The rumours of obsession are reinforced by the testimony of Wendy Sherman, the Clinton administration’s policy coordinator for North Korea,who asked the leader about his interest in movies. The leader replied “I own all the Academy Award movies. I’ve watched them all.”
Kim did not simply appreciate Hollywood’s outputs; he wanted to create his own better productions. To achieve his inner cultural desires Kim utilised his political power to its fullest extent. The clearest example of this takes us back to 1978 where we meet again with Shin Sang-Ok. The aforementioned South Korean filmmaker had fallen foul of the repressive government of General Park Chung Hee, who had closed his studio and continually shunned him from cultural circles. After making almost 60 movies in 20 years, Shin’s career appeared to be over. He could never have imagined Kim Jong-il was to become his career’s ‘salvation’.
Salvation is a very loose term within these circumstances. Kim Jong-il, as the country’s culture secretary, sent officials to Hong Kong to kidnap Shin. The officials shoved the director into a car, threw a bag over his head and transported him, wrapped in plastic, to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. The next thing the director knew, he had arrived in an all male prison where he would remain for several years. In his autobiography, Shin admits how he survived on a diet of “grass, salt and rice” and “experienced the limits of human beings”.
Four years later, Shin’s luck turned unexpectedly. He was released (from prison at least) and reunited with his wife, Choe Eun-hui, at a lavish government party thrown in his honour at the ruling party HQ. Kim Jong-il even apologised for his prison sentence blaming thoughtless officials for their foolishness as as well as accepting blame for being too preoccupied with the responsibilities of his office. In his autobiography Shin regales us with a revealing anecdote of his release party; while young women danced on stage shouting “Long live the great leader!” Kim leaned over and sighed in disgust, “Mr Shin, all that is bogus. It’s just pretence.”
The leader continued over drinks later on:”The North’s filmmakers are just doing perfunctory work,” said Kim. “They don’t have any new ideas. Their works have the same expressions, redundancies, the same old plots. All our movies are filled with crying and sobbing. I didn’t order them to portray that kind of thing.”
Although taken aback, Shin tentatively embraced the offer. Their relationship blossomed, albeit within the constraints of a captor/captive affinity. Shin recalled to The Guardian: “He listened to me because we were from South Korea…even though we criticised some things, he wanted us to be honest. Others would have been killed for speaking so honestly”. The South Korean believed that within these confines he created his best work, a 1984 movie entitled Runaway. He was even ‘free’ (see: accompanied by North Korean officials) to fly to East Berlin for location scouts. On one occasion Shin’s wife tugged at his sleeve as they passed the US Embassy pleading they should make a run for it. He hissed back “What’s the matter with you? I will not make an attempt unless it’s 100% certain. If they caught us, we’d be dead.”
The cultural epitome of their collaborative efforts was Pulgarasi. The Godzilla themed reboot is one of the few North Korean movies still available online; see for yourself here. The plot revolves around a small doll that magically comes to life when it touches blood. The doll grows into a giant, metal-eating monster that helps peasants overthrow their leader, only to find themselves enslaved by the creature’s constant desire for resources. To avoid any further spoilers, it’s clear that the film acts as a huge, unabashed metaphor for the flaws of capitalism. It’s fascinating. The battle scenes which apparently featured more than 10,000 extras would impress anyone although the effects look extremely dated echoing those of a bygone B-movie era (see above).
Although Kim was delighted with the final result, the pair’s creative relationship ended when Shin and Choe escaped during a location trip to Vienna in 1986. The filmmaker passed away aged 79 in 2006 and Kim rarely referenced the creative partnership again. Yet how was all this viewed by the ordinary North Korean? One defector recounted in Kong Dan Oh’s Through the Looking Glass how he was moved to tears by one of their propaganda laden films; however when he saw the movie again after fleeing to South Korea, the work struck him as “absolutely silly.”
Despite all this, Kim Jong-il’s greatest ‘contribution’ to the film world is his appearance in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police. Indeed within minutes of his death, Twitter was set alight with references to “I’m so Ronery”. Within his own nation, Kim Jong-il’s relationship with film has a sweeter ending as witnessed through the placard outside the Revolutionary Museum of Culture, which simply states Kim’s simple demand: “Make More Cartoons”.