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No stars, no swag, but what a crowd!

Reclusive North Korea invites the world -- well, not Hollywood -- to its film festival. Audience reaction is 'very refreshing.'

October 11, 2008|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA — You know you're not in Cannes when the all-female marching band, wearing white go-go boots, belts out communist anthems at the opening ceremony.

This is a film festival like none other in the world.

There are no movie stars, no paparazzi, hardly any press. No studio executives doing deals on their BlackBerrys -- cellphones and other wireless devices are banned in North Korea.

For that matter, so are most movies. North Korea is the closest thing the world has to a hermetically sealed society. There is no Internet. Radios and televisions are welded to government stations. Yet every two years since 1987, North Korea has opened its doors, and its screens, just enough to host the Pyongyang International Film Festival.

Back in the days when North Korea had allies, it was called the "Film Festival of Non-Aligned and Other Developing Countries." Now that the government in Pyongyang has few real friends, it accepts entries from countries that are at least not overtly hostile.

Hollywood need not apply.

"It is practically the only occasion where North Koreans can see foreign films," said Uwe Schmelter, who heads the Japan office of the Goethe Institute, the German cultural organization that supplied Germany's films to the festival.

The film festival is thought to have been the brainchild of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who spent much of his youth obsessed with movies and is believed to have a personal library of 20,000 titles.

As the band played on for last month's opening ceremony, an unlikely mingling of Communist Party apparatchiks and European filmmakers filed up a long ramp past a row of Korean movie posters at the Pyongyang International Cinema, a poured-concrete structure with a spiral design that must have looked very modernistic in the 1980s.

Although the sun was still high over the capital on the unseasonably warm afternoon, most people wore black, the North Korean cadres buttoned into stiff business suits with the obligatory badges of founding father Kim Il Sung on their lapels, the European men in jeans.

Adding a little glamour, a few of the visiting women wore diaphanous sleeveless outfits, their blond hair cascading over bared shoulders, a curious sight in a country where people are not expected to show arms, knees or midriffs.

The culture clash is such that the festival organizers keep the foreign attendees and the North Koreans apart. Like other visitors in Pyongyang, the filmgoers were escorted at all times by official guides, better known as minders. Foreigners were lodged in the Yanggakdo Hotel on an island in the middle of the Taedong River, which runs through town -- a further disincentive to anyone who might want to wander off into the city. (Visitors to Pyongyang call the hotel "Alcatraz.")

Without any opportunities to explore, evenings were spent on the hotel's 47th floor in a revolving restaurant that no longer revolves, with green carpeting that looks like it was stripped from a miniature golf course.

"You can't just go up to people and have a little chat about film," said Anke Redl, who works for a German film distributor based in Beijing.


This year, 110 films from 46 nations were screened, among them China, Russia, Germany, Sweden, Britain, Egypt and Iran. Although most films aren't overtly propagandistic, there is a strong preference for themes emphasizing family values, loyalty, the temptations of money.

"The Tender Heart," a little-known Chinese film that opened the 10-day festival, is about a small boy searching for the mother who abandoned him and his father in search of riches in the city. Because there was no budget for subtitles, the film had a Korean-language voice-over with an adult actress reading the boy's histrionic dialogue. Several members of the audience walked out in disgust before the film was over.

But things picked up from there. A Chinese war film, "Assembly," by acclaimed director Feng Xiaogang and a big hit last year in China, won the grand prize at the closing ceremony.

Screenings of two British films, "Atonement" and "Elizabeth I: The Golden Age," were so crowded that guards had to bar the doors to prevent gate-crashers. Two years ago, a mob overpowered security to get into a sold-out showing of a Swedish vampire film.

"I've seen them beating down the doors," said Henrik Nydqvist, a Swedish producer who has attended the festival three times since 2004.

He says filmmakers like to attend Pyongyang's festival despite the limited deal-making opportunities because of the passion of the crowds: "Their emotional responses are very direct and natural. They don't anticipate the endings of the film. This is something you can't see in Europe, and it is very refreshing."

The Ministry of Culture, which oversees the festival, pays for filmmakers to attend. Most come from European countries that have diplomatic relations with North Korea; others come from China.

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