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.
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.
Takahashi Minoru: Pak Ki Ju
Ryu Chon Song: Kim Ryong Rin
Pak Sang Min: Pak Song
Ko Hak Rim
Director of Photography:
Jon Hong Sok
Choe Il Sim
Ryo Yong Gu
So Jong Gon