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North Korean Cinema Ready for Its Close-Up at South's Film Fest

Ideological power of the medium had made officials wary of such an exhibition. Observers differ on the movies' commercial potential.

October 09, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

PUSAN, South Korea — One might say that film is the last taboo in the cultural exchanges between the estranged Koreas. Classical musicians, pop stars, athletes, dancers, acrobats and even cheerleaders have crossed the 38th parallel in recent years. But celluloid has rarely spanned the great divide.

Overcoming long-held fears that the medium could be a powerful ideological tool, this week's Pusan International Film Festival is offering the first extensive screening of North Korean movies in the South.

Festival organizers have picked seven films that range in genre and period. They include "My Hometown," a black-and-white classic about a peasant uprising styled after Sergei Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin," and the 1993 romantic comedy "They Met on the Daedong River."

"This is the official opening of the cinema world between the two countries," the film festival's chairman, Kim Dong Ho, said at a news conference Sunday.

The breakthrough event has been long in the planning. Every year of the previous five, organizers had asked permission to show films from the North and been refused by their government on the grounds that the films violate national security laws, which prohibit the propagation of Communist ideology.

This year, permission was granted, but not until Saturday, the third day of the 10-day festival. The late notice meant that it was impossible to invite North Korean directors to publicize the films or organize seminars about them. South Korea's National Intelligence Service also barred the public from attending screenings of two of the films, limiting the audience to journalists and VIP guests.

"The main reason is that film can have a tremendous impact before a large audience, so we have to be especially careful with film," Kim said.

In fact, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is known to be a film buff who has a private collection of thousands of titles. He also is a serious film student and in 1987 published a book titled "On the Art of Cinema."

"Today, cinema has the task of contributing to the development of people to be true Communists and to the revolutionization and working-classization of the whole of society," Kim wrote in the book's preface.

In one of the more bizarre incidents in Korean relations, Kim is believed to have ordered the kidnapping of a South Korean director and his actress wife in 1978 because he admired their work and wanted them to upgrade the North Korean film industry. Director Shin Sang Ok and actress Choi Eun Hee spent eight years in North Korea making films before they escaped in 1986.

North Korea typically produces about 60 films per year. Experts say that the quality has suffered in recent years as a result of North Korea's multiple shortages -- money, electricity, freedom and exposure to outside cultural influences.

Lee Woo Yong, a specialist in North Korean culture with the Korea Institute for National Unification, a Seoul think tank, said North Korean films are stuck technologically at a 1970s level and have had limited success abroad despite the country's concerted effort to export them.

"Their films are not commercially viable or fun. And they're not that great from an aesthetic standpoint, either," Lee said. "I think for South Korean moviegoers, these films will be little more than a curiosity."

But Kwan Duk Sal, a video store owner who was waiting in line outside a Pusan theater to buy tickets for the North Korean films, disagreed about their commercial potential.

"The North Korean films are not as sophisticated as South Korean films. They are more simple and pure," Kwan said. "I think some people are nostalgic for those qualities that are disappearing here and that there will be a market."

The more recent of the North Korean films being shown at the festival are less political in content and look remarkably like South Korean films, albeit with actors wearing lapel pins hailing North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, usually affixed to clothing that was already a decade out of style when the film was released.

Romance is an evergreen theme, as demonstrated by the 1955 film "The Newlyweds" and "Beyond Joy and Sadness," a particularly daring film at the time of its 1985 release because it focused on a love triangle and featured the first cinematic kiss in prudish North Korea.

"They chose films that they felt people from both Koreas could relate to sentimentally and emotionally, even if our ideologies are different," said Park Jeong Il, an official in the Pusan mayor's office who helped arrange the showings.

North Korean films have been shown only rarely in South Korea, and often those prints had been smuggled into the country. In 1990, riot police blocked the showing of a North Korean film on a university campus in Seoul. Since then, commercial distributors have occasionally brought in North Korean movies, but they've been edited to remove anything that could be construed as praise for the regime.

In May, the film "Arirang," about Korean resistance during the 1910-45 Japanese occupation, became the first South Korean movie to be shown in Pyongyang.

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