Cinema Offers Look Inside North Korea's Evolution For the first time in its history, North Korea had a film screened at the Cannes film festival, which was held earlier this year. Observers say it's a cultural indication of the secretive nation's interest in opening up to the West.
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Cinema Offers Look Inside North Korea's Evolution

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Cinema Offers Look Inside North Korea's Evolution

Cinema Offers Look Inside North Korea's Evolution

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Members of the International Atomic Energy Agency arrive in North Korea tomorrow to continue supervising the shutdown of a key nuclear reactor. North Korea agreed to scrap the program in January in exchange for economic and political concessions from countries, including the U.S. and China. Not long after that and for the first time, North Korea had a film screened at the Cannes Film Festival. It was seen as a significant sign of that country's interest in opening up to the West.

NPR's Neda Ulaby spoke with a Korean film scholar who says movies are a unique window into that closed society.

NEDA ULABY: What most of us know about this mysterious country is its history of human rights abuses and nuclear proliferation. In the U.S., that's made North Korea a target for satire.

(Soundbite of movie, "Team America: World Police")

Unidentified Man#1: Now, take your weapons of mass destruction and get the (bleep) out of here.

ULABY: That's from the movie, "Team America: World Police."

Professor SOUK YONG KIM (University of California Santa Barbara): Oh, it was hilarious. It was hilarious.

ULABY: Souk Yong Kim teaches at the University of California Santa Barbara, and studies North Korean popular culture. She says the country hasn't been any better at portraying us, especially during the height of the Cold War Propaganda films featured brutal Americans. Like this melodrama from 1966, which shows a U.S. soldier coming on to a beautiful North Korean.

(Soundbite of a Korean movie)

ULABY: When she resists his advances, he shoots her.

Prof. KIM: It's quite in-your-face, blunt propaganda of inciting hatred for Americans.

ULABY: Kim hold an audience at the Library of Congress that everything in North Korea's state-run entertainment industry serves as propaganda. That includes cartoons for kids. This one shows a barnyard of animals arguing over who gets to be served for dinner.

(Soundbite of cartoon)

Prof. KIM: Self-sacrifice for the greater cause of the community is a justifiable act.

ULABY: Kim said film in North Korea has traditionally been a cheap and easy way to spread the revolutionary message to rural peasants. The medium is beloved by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Prof. KIM: He is known to be an extremely talented, artistic person, and he tapped into his artistic talent to really prove his filial piety for his father, Kim Il Sung.

ULABY: Kim Il Sung founded the Republic of North Korea. When he died, his son's documentary about his funeral, helped cement Kim Jong Il's path to power. The aspiring young director showed masses of wailing citizens. Grief even overcomes the narrator.

(Soundbite of a Korean documentary)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in Korean)

ULABY: But by the late 1970s, traditional propaganda films bored the man known as Dear Leader, says scholar Souk Yong Kim. He needed something new.

Prof. KIM: This crazy man obsessed with film, probably a megalomaniac, went so far as to kidnap South Korean film couple to make good communist films for him.

ULABY: A popular South Korean actress and a leading director disappeared in 1978. According to their account, they were abducted by North Korean agents and imprisoned for years in reeducation camps. Then, Kim Jong Il forced them to make movies. That transformed North Korean cinema.

(Soundbite of a Korean movie)

Unidentified Man#2: (Singing in Korean)

ULABY: Director Shin Sang-ok and his wife made seven movies before their dramatic escape in 1986. He made musicals that tackled new themes to North Korea, like romantic love. He made a Godzilla-like movie that's achieved some cult status here. And he supervised others that borrowed from Hong Kong action, like one about a North Korean Robin Hood who steals from the rich and gives to the people.

(Soundbite of a Korean movie)

ULABY: North Korean movies have continued to evolve albeit under Dear Leader's guiding hand. Film professor Souk Yong Kim says he helped with the script and production of North Korea's entry to Cannes Film Festival. It's called "The Schoolgirl's Diary."

Prof. KIM: It is about this teenage girl carrying Mickey Mouse backpack. She's chattering with her friends, sometimes using English words, which is quite interesting.

ULABY: Kim ascribes such influence to the pirate DVDs and other merchandise from the West and Japan that peddlers carry across the border from China. She says this movie proves that borders are opening.

Prof. KIM: Just the fact that they submitted "Schoolgirl's Diary" to Cannes Film Festival this year shows us that they're extremely interested in joining the rest of the world.

ULABY: And maybe being seen and understood by it as well.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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