Sunday, August 31, 2014

Film critic Simon Fowler (The Guardian) used to hunt down obscure propaganda movies smuggled out of the secretive state. Now, many of them are freely available to watch online.

Here’s his pick of the best: The Flower Girl (1972)

The Flower Girl is a North Korean revolutionary genre theatrical performance, which was written by the country’s first Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung according to official North Korean propaganda. The performance is considered as one of the “Five Great Revolutionary Operas,” a group of classical, revolution-themed opera repertoires well received within North Korea. It was also made into a novel. A film adaption of the opera starring Hong Yong-hee was made in 1972.

Set during the time of Japanese rule in the 1920/30s, The Flower Girl (1972) follows a young woman and her family as they are mistreated by their landlord. With an ever-increasing stream of bad luck befalling the family, the only thing that can save the family (and North Korea) is the deus ex machina of Kim Il-sung and his communist army who arrive on the scene in the final 10 minutes to right all the wrongs of society. Life is tough, the film seems to say, but at least it’s better than when the Japanese were here.

The importance of The Flower Girl within the DPRK cannot be overestimated. The star, Hong Yong-hee, adorns the one won bank note in North Korea, and is revered as a national hero. Although not always an easy watch, those wanting to learn more about the average North Koreans’ sensibilities could do far worse than to watch this picturesque but tragic film.

Hong Kil Dong (1986)

Pulgasari (1985)

Pulgasari is a 1985 North Korean Kaiju film directed by Shin Sang-ok and Chong Gon Jo. Director Shin had been kidnapped in 1978 by North Korean intelligence on the orders of Kim Jong-il, son of the then-ruling Kim Il-sung.

Kim was a lifelong admirer of the director, Godzilla, and other Kaiju films. He kidnapped the former director and his wife, famous actress Choi Eun-hee, with the specific purpose of making fantasy/propaganda films for the North Korean government. Kim Jong-il also produced Pulgasari and all the films that Sang-ok made before he and Choi managed to escape from their minders while on tour in Austria.

Teruyoshi Nakano and the staff from Japan’s Toho studios, the creators of Godzilla, participated in creating the film’s special effects. Kenpachiro Satsuma – the stunt performer who played Godzilla from 1984 to 1995 – portrayed Pulgasari, and when the Godzilla reimagining was released in Japan in 1998, he was quoted as saying he preferred Pulgasari than Emmerich’s “Godzilla.”

Marathon Runner (2002)

Center Forward (1978)

The country’s first football film originally made in 1978, now rereleased and remastered by Koryo Tours (2010). This 75 minute film is well known in North Korea but has never been released internationally.


Simon Fowler is author of 101 Essential Chinese Movies.

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