North Korean Cinema – A Short History
Lecture by Johannes Schonherr in Kyoto on November 17th
Cinema has always been central to North Korean propaganda. Cinema is a group experience and it can transport great emotions while the state is in full control of all film production and distribution. It is the ideal medium for the leadership to spread its messages to the population in a gripping, sometimes even entertaining way…or rather, it used to be.
In this lecture, I will outline the major developments of North Korean cinema from its beginning to now.
North Korean cinema started out with the film My Home Village in 1949. This film can be seen as laying a popular foundation for the myths of Kim Il Sung as “liberator of Korea” and “father of the nation”. These myths are still essential in North Korean propaganda today as the basic justifications of the Kim dynasty leadership.
The Korean War (1950-1953) introduced the genre of the war movie and the “American imperialists” as main enemies. War movies telling stories from the Korean War are still being made today.
With Kim Jong Il’s ascendency, a movie lover took over the reign in the film studios. Kim Jong Il, who later became the leader of North Korea, started out overseeing the production of films in 1965 and he was involved in the making of every major North Korean film right until his death in 2011. He even wrote a book teaching how to correctly make films in North Korea, On the Art of the Cinema (1973).
Under Kim Jong Il’s guidance, South Korean director Shin Sang Ok produced a number of works in North Korea in the mid-1980s. Shin may or may not have been kidnapped to North Korea… in any case he directed some of the best films ever made in North Korea. In 1986, Shin escaped from North Korea.
After Shin’s departure, the North Korean film industry went into a slow but over time accelerating decline.
Today, the North Korean film industry is not able anymore to compete with the video tapes and DVDs of foreign (often South Korean) films smuggled in from China and watched by considerable parts of the population under clandestine conditions.
Ironically, film, the medium that used to be the strongest propaganda tool in the past, has by now become threateningly subversive to the leadership.
Several clips from North Korean films will be screened at the lecture.
Johannes Schonherr has been on film-related missions to North Korea twice. In August 2012, his book North Korean Cinema – A History was published by McFarland in the U.S.