The decades-long cinematic arms race between North and South Korea

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In recent years, North Korea has become the antagonist of choice in Hollywood action movies such as Olympus Has Fallen and the remake of Red Dawn. That trend is mostly a matter of convenience: studios don’t want to antagonize any more plausible military powers that also happen to be emerging movie markets, including China and Russia.

But using North Korea as a workaround became less convenient in December when The Interview, starring James Franco and Seth Rogen a pair of lackadaisical journalists who land an interview with Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) and are asked by the CIA to assassinate him, prompted saber-rattling from the North Korean regime and threats of violence against theatres that had the temerity to show the movie.

While North Korea’s reaction to the US might have been unnerving for Americans, who are still adjusting to the impact of international audiences on their movies and television, the incident shouldn’t have come as a surprise. With The Interview, the US blundered into a regional cultural arms race that’s been going on for decades.

In The Interview, the two journalists are invited because Kim Jong-un happens to love The Big Bang Theory. That’s no flight of fancy: The first major position of the present leader’s father, Kim Jong-il, in his father’s regime was overseeing the Bureau of Propaganda and Agitation, including North Korea’s movie operations. Kim Sr. reportedly loved Elizabeth Taylor, Sean Connery, James Bond movies, Friday the 13th and First Blood.

Paul Fischer’s book A Kim Jong-il Production is a highly illuminating look at the middle Kim’s cinematic obsessions and the cinematic arms race between the two Koreas. Some of that competition was driven by the recognition that movies could be powerful political tools. North and South Korean children saw propaganda films about the evils of the government and people on the other side of the border. A drama Sea of Blood, which Fischer identifies as a turning point in Kim Jong-il’s movie-making, established the standard elements of a North Korean movie. At the same time, South Korea was making its own investments in movies.

As the balance of cultural influence shifted, Kim Jong-il implemented a plan to revitalize North Korean cinema that makes the present regime’s threats over The Interview seem less ridiculous and more plausible. In 1978, Kim ordered the kidnapping of a South Korean actress, Choi Eun-hee, and her director husband, Shin Sang-ok. Kim put them both to work revitalizing North Korean cinema.

In the fight for both international prestige and peninsular influence, South Korea obviously seems to be winning. The New York Times recently reported on just how powerful a temptation South Korean soap operas can be to North Koreans, but this is hardly a new phenomenon. Pirated DVDs have long been available on the black market in cities like Chongjin, and the North Korean government has long been trying to deter people from buying or owning them by making such acts a “betrayal of the fatherland”.

Paradoxically, it may have been Kim Jong-il’s attempts to create a more sophisticated North Korean cinematic culture that helped stoke North Korean hunger for higher quality, which often meant imported, stories.

Fischer writes that a North Korean defector told him that before: “We just watched our films and documentaries and accepted them the way they were. We thought that’s how movies are. But after the Shin Sang-ok era, we had new eyes.”

P.S. –Director Shin and actress Choi collaborated on a number of North Korean projects, but ultimately, they managed to escape, leaving Kim without a captive auteur, or a long-term plan to develop North Korean culture.

[South China Morning Post]

This entry was posted in , , by Grant Montgomery.

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