Hot Docs: The Great North Korean Picture Show – James Leong & Lynn Lee

hotdocsWednesday evening, I got a look inside the world of acting and film in North Korea.

What I found was an entertaining film, that despite being heavily monitored by the secretive state’s government (they reviewed all the dailies before they were allowed to be used, and some material couldn’t be used due to faults, according to them, in framing and presentation) shed a little bit of light on the people of this nation.

There is the director Pyo Hang who is hard at work on his new film which coincides with the 50th anniversary of a forced disbanding of the Korean army by the Japanese, and he’s working at getting the right emotions from his cast of extras (all soldiers and not actors by any stretch of the imagination). He doesn’t understand how none of them can properly portray the moments required, and puts them through their paces constantly, demonstrating over and over again what he wants all while berating them for smiling.

But he is happy, of course, to sing the party’s praises on camera and lauding the work of the Great Leader, Kim Jong-Il.

The_Great_North_Korean_Picture_Show_4Someone, apparently, who had opinions on everything, and was only to willing to make sure everyone knew it. There are quotes from him everywhere, and those in the film can recite many of the little bon mots he issued for their work verbatim.

There are literally legends created around his influence and guidance of the country’s film industry, which is not there for people to make money and entertain the masses, but merely to perpetuate the propaganda, and revisit history.

Homes seem sparse, with few personal items, and blackouts seem to strike without warning, streets of the neighborhoods reminded me of pictures I’d seen from the 80s of apartment housing in the U.S.S.R., while museums filled with paintings and photos of Kim Jong-Il seemed almost regal, in blatant ignorance of the people.

Over at the Acting and Music University, two young actors Kim Un Bom and Ri Yun Mi, chosen to be the next big thing, live their dreams within the confines of the political dogma that permeates the state. Both of them are likeable, and there are flashes of humanity under the espoused political rhetoric, there are smiles, and laughter, even when they are being berated for not performing properly (though the scripts they are given are shoddy to begin with) or being told they are too fat in dance class.

The_Great_North_Korean_Picture_Show_2I like the sequences with Kim and Yun most as they would let the facade slip just enough to reveal the person behind the country. Everyone is aware, all the time, that the film will be rewatched by the state before it gets released back to the directors, so there is nothing explosive or shocking revealed, just the oddness of a Great Leader who has to control every part of his country, down to the tiniest details.

The audience had a great time with this one, filling the theater with laughter and shocked gasps of stunned surprise over incidents and situations.

Despite where they live, or perhaps because of it, they have their dreams and hopes, both for themselves and their Great Leader…

The Great North Korean Picture Show screens again tonight at 7pm at the Lightbox, and one more time tomorrow at 9:15 at Scotibank.

If you’re interested in this secretive country, or love film, this one is worth your time!


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