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The Country I Saw (1987, English Subtitles)

Ever wondered what an outsider would think of North Korea? This film attempts to answer the question for those who actually live in the country. A Japanese journalist (Takahashi Minoru) who worked with the Japanese Army in World War II returns to Korea after some years of absence. Sparked by intriguing queries from his students, he sets out to see what conditions are like and whether the “theoretical” Juche ideal could hold up in reality. He’s heard rumors, but he is of the firm belief that all things must be seen first-hand.

SPOILERS BELOW

What Takahashi discovers is something totally beyond his comprehension. First, he is given free wooden teeth after not being able to eat for years. Afterwards, a government official guides hims around the country, allowing him to see all of the good that’s being done. First, Takahashi meets a pottery maker, who rose from being a simple worker during World War II to being a revered artist in the new state.  Later, he tours a small family’s apartment, but only a child is home. As a result of these activities, he’s late writing an article for the Japanese newspaper that he was supposed to finish in three days. He vows to see more of the country, after spending all night reading newspapers. Takahashi then visits a small island, where two teachers are teaching three small students, and one is being sent away to middle school. While inspired, he goes into a hospital, where a whole crowd of people are volunteering to donate blood. Takahashi offers to donate his blood as well, but the doctor diagnoses him as insane with schizophrenia. Luckily, the government official finds him, and the situation is cleared up.

Now desiring to see the peasant life, Takahashi journeys out to Nampho. He witnesses several farms and families, but his tour is interrupted by the visit of a much more important individual: Kim Il-Sung himself. He has come to congratulate the farmers on their hard work. Il-Sung is never seen, but the workers are seen flocking to his car and applauding him. Later, Takahashi finally founds what he made the whole journey for: A bunch of siblings who were orphaned during World War II and interviewed by him after the event. They are all seen to be living in an apartment and carrying out comfortable lives. They had met with Kim Il-Sung, who offered to be their father and gave his condolences.

He is given time to reflect on all that he’s seen, and eventually has a heart-to-heart with his guide. The guide reveals himself to be a rebellious Korean that Takahashi met during the war. During the war, the man had called out Takahashi on a lie that he wrote in the newspaper, encouraging him to first see things for himself before reporting rumors. This was a value Takahashi took to heart, and was the reason he returned to the DPRK in the first place. He is now inspired to overstay his original plans and visit Mt. Paektu, where the ragtag Korean army had defeated the mighty Japanese during World War II. Afterwards, he figures out the final step in his journey: he must see Kim Il-Sung. After a few weeks of writing to him by post, Takahashi is invited to a children’s performance, where Il-Sung was in attendance. He finally meets the man and writes his long-awaited article. He then leaves the DPRK, waving to those who have given such meaning to his life in his older years. The audience then sees his daughter reading the manuscript some years later, remembering what her father had done.’

This film continues the DPRK tradition of never actually seeing Kim Il-Sung on screen. It’s also interesting in that it provides some insight into how North Koreans are supposed to perceive the outside world. Supposedly, Takahashi cannot even afford false teeth, and wooden teeth are considered to be a luxury (something that’s totally obsolete). The DPRK is also depicted as having apples, even though fruit is hard to come by in the country. There’s also an interesting montage when Takahashi visits Mt. Paektu, but it’s really nothing more than random images from old movies scarily thrown together.

If you’re interested in further information on the sequels to these films, then see the detailed article over at 38 North.

Cast:
Takahashi Minoru: Pak Ki Ju
Ryu Chon Song: Kim Ryong Rin
Pak Sang Min: Pak Song

Director:
Ko Hak Rim

Director of Photography:
Jon Hong Sok

Script Writer:
Choe Il Sim

Art Design:
Ryo Yong Gu

Music:
So Jong Gon

A Traffic Controller on Crossroads (1986, English Subtitles)

This is a film about, you guessed it, traffic safety. It starts off with a woman who has just been newly christened in her job as a Pyongyang traffic supervisor. On her first assignment, she encounters a man who is using his work truck for personal use, along with driving unsafely. She detains him before eventually finding out that he was delivering the washing machine to her house. She attempts to hide in another room, but the man sees her.  She immediately feels guilty for her actions.

SPOILERS BELOW

The man continues to drive unsafely, and the traffic woman gives a presentation on traffic safety to local citizens, who appreciate her advice. There’s lots of scenes with the man and woman deliberating over what to do. The traffic woman begins to wonder whether she should have gone into rhythmic gymnastics. She eventually speaks to her supervisor, who talks about how she let another young driver slide on traffic regulations, which resulted in a terrible accident. Later, the chauffeur of the head of the Research Institute violates a no parking zone. The traffic woman chastises him, and the head of the Research Institute goes back later to make a formal apology.

The driver from the beginning is falling asleep while driving in the outskirts of Pyongyang, and caught by the traffic woman. He is told to wait and promptly falls asleep. The traffic woman soon discovers someone driving dynamite from Nampho to the Anju mines. His truck has broken down, and his cargo is in danger of getting wet, making it useless. The traffic woman soon goes to get the replacement parts, and repairs the truck. The man who’s fallen asleep has now awakened, and walks out of his truck to discover the traffic woman working on the broken down dynamite truck. She cannot fix it on her own, so he steps in to finish the repair. He then realizes the value of her work, and vows to drive safer. The film closes with the Pyongyang traffic woman on the job, saluting to the man while he drives the truck. She receives flowers for her valiant effort in repairing the dynamite truck.

This films’ premise is, perhaps, the most absurd of them all. It’s a film about traffic safety in a country with almost no traffic, much less people who own cars. It is a solid affirmation of equality between men and women in a Communist society, though.

Cast and Crew unknown.

The Shore of Rescue (1990, English Subtitles)

Part 1:

Part 2:

Alternate Title: Bereg Spasenya

This was the last Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea/Union of Soviet Socialist Republics co-production, and is based on a true story. This is an epic taking place during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. It involves four parties. The first is a group of five Russian sailors who are marooned on the Korean peninsula after their ship, the Svetlana, is destroyed. Their objective is to hike north to Vladivostok, so they can return home. The second is a group of Japanese bandits who want to pillage the tomb of a local king. The third is a Korean village who are angered by the death of a local. They presume that the Russians killed him. The last party involved is a female hermit, who wishes to return to the village after being banished because her father is believed to be a traitor.

SPOILERS BELOW

The female hermit’s aunt is killed by bandits, but the Russians attempt to save her in the nick of time. The female hermit sees their kindness, and offers to lead them home. She tries to enlist the help of the villagers, but they refuse to believe the Russians didn’t kill the local. Eventually, the hermit departs the Russians when they venture too far north of her homeland. They are immediately captured by the Japanese, who claim they will hang the Russians by sunrise if they don’t divulge the location of the King’s tomb, which they stumbled upon earlier. The Russians are freed overnight by a Korean monk, who also arms them with rifles. The enraged Japanese respond by attacking the local Korean village. The Russians charge in and manage to save the village in the nick of time, convincing the villagers of their good intentions. The villagers also realize, through talking to the aforementioned Korean monk, that the female hermit’s father wasn’t a traitor, and agree to let her live in the village. Just then, one of the Russian sailors is shot by a Japanese bandit. The remaining sailors, the villagers, and the female hermit take revenge on the Japanese, killing them all. The final scene depicts the funeral of the dead sailor, and the remaining sailors getting a friendly farewell. They’re supplied horses and presumably head north, to Vladivostok.

This film has many propaganda-like elements. The Japanese are shown to be greedy savages. This film also takes the oft-used tactic of characters misunderstanding each other in order to create tension. Interestingly, in an American film, the female hermit would probably be accepted back into the village regardless of her father’s status. In this movie, she is only let back into the village when her father’s name is cleared. This would go along the lines of how people are presumed to be treated in the Soviet Union and DPRK, because a whole family suffers if one of the parents is a traitor.

Directors:

Arya-zhav Dashiev

Ryu-kho Son

Cast:

Dmitry Matveev

Viktor Stepanov

Boris Nevzorov

Vitaly Serov

Aleksandr Slastin

The Schoolgirl’s Diary (2006, English Subtitles)

Alternate Titles: “A Schoolgirl’s Diary”, “The Journal of a Schoolgirl”

This is one of the only DPRK movies to be distributed abroad, as it saw a limited straight-to-DVD release in France during 2007.

At first, this movie seems like the typical Communist fare. A coming-of-age girl has a deadbeat father who she wants to be a bigger part of the family. She resents him and doesn’t know what to do with her life.

SPOILERS BELOW

Eventually, her father discovers how to establish a computerized production line, and he is revered throughout the country. Her daughter learns that her father and mother both devoted their lives to science and General Kim Jong-Il, and they were both justly rewarded. She decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a scientist.

But, the unusual thing seen here is the pining for material goods. Su Ryon is seen wanting to live in an apartment. Normally, this would be dismissed as a foolish young urge, but she is rewarded with a fully furnished apartment to live in by the end of the movie. This could be seen as a reward to the father for devoting his life to the state, or it could be seen as a capitalistic desire fulfilled. Either way, it’s something to think about.

Cast:
Su Ryon- Pak Mi-hyang
San Myong- Kim Chol
Jong Ran- Kim Yong-suk

Crew:
Director: Jang In-hak
Director of Photography: Hwang Ryong-chol
Script: An Jin-bo
Art Design: Ro Yong-gil
Music: Jo Song-su

A Production of the Korean Film Studio

Hong Kil Dong (1986, English Subtitles)

This film was particularly popular in Eastern Europe and Cuba, as it was widely distributed among other Socialist countries. I don’t have a synopsis right now, but all you need to know is that there’s some excellent Kung-Fu action. (If you want to submit a synopsis, I’ll put it in the description!)

Cast:
Chang Son Hui
Gwon Ri – Father of Hong Kil Dong
Riyonun Ri
Yong Ho Ri – Hong Kil Dong
Kenpachiro Satsuma

Director:
Kil-in Kim

Writer:
Se Ryun Kim

The Blood Stained Route Map Parts 1 and 2 (2002, English Subtitles)

Alternate Title: Blood-Stained Sketch Map

This film is unique in that it has been screened in South Korea twice. The first time came during the Jeonju International Film Festival from the 28. April – 6. May of 2005. It was screened along with fellow DPRK Films “Welcome to Pyongyang Animal Park” and “Spirit of Celadon”. The film was screened a second time on 1. July 2005, in front of the Seoul City Hall in preparation for the Daejong Film Festival.

The film is about three brothers who lived during ancient times. Their father kills himself after Japanese Raiders invade his island in search of the Golden Buddha. The father gives the last map of where the buddha is to his three sons, but only in three parts. The sons run away with the mother, bent on vengeance.

SPOILERS BELOW

The youngest son, who thinks himself to be the only survivor of his family, goes on a quest to kill the Japanese man who helped to murder his father. He plans to do so at a competition where swords and the like are used, with a monk companion of his. He fails to do so, and ends up running away. He single handedly ambushes a caravan in the forest, thinking it to be the Jap, but discovering it is the noble daughter whom he met earlier. He tends to her, but the Jap ambushes him. He responds by impaling the Jap and leaving the noble daughter alone. Part 1 ends with him swearing revenge on a corrupt local Korean leader.

Cast:
Chang-su Choe
Ryon-hwa Kim

Crew:
Director: Phyo Kwang

A Forest Is Swaying (1982, English Subtitles)

“A Forest is Swaying” is the story of a former soldier (Pak Sŏng-ryong) who struggles to plant a pine forest and raise and orphaned child in an area devastated by American bombs in the Fatherland Liberation War (Korean War). A young agricultural expert comes to judge the work Pak has been doing. She finds that it is impossible to have a pine forest in this area, and surmises that he should plant other trees instead. He continues to plant pine trees regardless of her advice.

SPOILERS BELOW

The trees survive a harsh winter after they were thought to have died, and a forest begins to take root. The agricultural expert sees Pak’s dedication to the state, and decides to move out to the forest and marry Pak. Many years later, Pak and his family live in the forest that Pak created. In the meantime, they have given birth to two sons, and their orphan daughter, Song I, is now nearly of age and is ready to go to college. Pak insists that she become a schoolteacher for mountain village children, but Song I wants to move to the city and bring the family with her. Pak breaks down in tears upon hearing this news, and Song I discovers that she was an orphan. Song I comes around and agrees to teach mountain village children, especially after hearing what Pak did for her. Pak continues to create new forest, and once the forest begins hearing fruit, he is asked to meet the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung. The film ends with Pak in the car with his young son, on his way to meet the Great Leader.

As far as DPRK movies go, this is pretty standard fare. But you can see the important emphasis put on family, as well as the promotion of environmental conservation. The last scene, where the man from the city talks about how great it is that Pak is meeting Kim Il-Sung, is reminiscent of a Christian movie. The man is almost a preacher singing God’s praises, accentuated by heavy music and a captive, appreciative audience.

It’s also interesting to note the despite how many times he’s mentioned, Kim Il-Sung never actually appears in this film, even in an image (aside from the small pins everyone wears).

Director: Yong-bok Jang

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