Kim Jong Il The Filmmaker
“The Cinema is a powerful ideological weapon.”
KIM JONG IL 1987
Kim Jong Il is known in the West as a ruthless Dictator. But his extraordinary contribution to cinema has been totally overlooked. De Palma has paid homage to Hitchcock, and Tarantino has paid homage to everyone from Pekinpah to John Woo. I made AIM HIGH! in part because I believe it’s time we paid homage to Kim Jong Il the filmmaker. In fact, I’m surprised no one has done it until now.
When I first started reading Kim Jong Il’s Manifesto on how to make the perfect propaganda film, all I knew about the Dear Leader was that he wore tinted aviators and Mao suits, he’d threatened to bomb America, and he was a pop icon on YouTube, thanks to the singing puppet in Team America and Kim Jong Il versus Hulk Hogan (31.9 million hits and counting).
But Kim Jong Il’s book showed me someone very different: a man who was passionate about cinema, and thought like an artist. I was immediately hooked by his detailed (and often counter-intuitive) filmmaking instructions: and by the conflict between his mission to slam capitalism on screen, and his love of western cinema.
The fact is, Kim loved movies – including Hollywood ones, which he grew up watching thanks to his Father Kim Il Sung’s privileged access to the outside world. North Korean history books say Kim Jong Il’s love of movies started young: when he was just seven, he visited the set of a movie being shot in the snow, and noticed a continuity error: the flakes on the actors’ shoulders did not match the wide shot. The boy’s opinion was so highly valued, the director re-shot the whole scene.
According to Kim Jong Il’s former sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto, and others who knew him as a boy, he loved James Bond movies (except for the one with North Korean bad guys), Hong Kong chopsocky action flicks, and every film Elizabeth Taylor ever made. He graduated in economics and politics from Kim Il Sung University, where he was also known as an idealistic poet, and popular with the girls.
Kim Jong Il evolved into a master storyteller: writing plays, operas and film scripts, and producing a prolific number of instruction manuals: not just about movie making, but about Opera, Literature, and Music. He also penned a few hit songs.
Shin San Ok, the South Korean director Kim Jong Il allegedly kidnapped in 1978 to modernise North Korean movie-making, revealed that the Dear Leader kept 20,000 western films, in a vacuum-sealed vault in Pyongyang. In the eight years Shin worked in North Korea, Kim Jong Il gave him everything he needed to make bigger, better films: thousands of extras, German camera equipment, the special effects team of Godzilla for his monster movie Pulgasari, and on one occasion, a real train to blow up.
Kim Jong Il’s strategy paid off: Shin’s movies were light on propaganda and heavy on entertainment, novelty and sex – which had never been seen on North Korean screens before. They were hugely popular, winning a string of accolades in the Eastern Bloc, including Best Actress at Moscow International Film Festival for Shin’s wife Choi Eun Hee: for her gut wrenching performance in the movie Salt.
When Shin and Choi defected back to the west in 1986, they confirmed that Kim Jong Il was determined to make movies that could compete on the international stage. As ‘Creative Commander’ of North Korea’s film industry from 1964 to 2011, he had worked tirelessly to achieve this goal: visiting film sets to give ‘on the spot creative guidance’ exactly 11,870 times.
The Kim Jong Il film museum at the Pyongyang Film Studios has a huge chart, in which the date of each visit he made to movie sets is listed on the wall. The guide who showed it to us explained that while visiting the set of 1968 Revolutionary Opera Sea of Blood, Kim Jong Il helped get a complex battle scene, involving fire and hundreds of extras, shot on time – by inventing the three camera shoot.
Painting of the making of ‘Sea of Blood’: Pyongyang Film Studios.
In its heyday in the 1970s and 80s, the North Korean film industry was releasing 30-40 features a year, alongside documentaries, soaps and the long-running Noir TV series, Nation and Destiny. Kim Jong Il executive produced over 1400 of these films and documentaries throughout his career – but he never took a direct credit.
The North Korean filmmakers we interviewed for AIM HIGH! were full of genuine praise, for the man they call a cinematic genius. Movie star Yun Su Gyong described his gentle approach to rehearing actors; Director Pak Jong Ju, veteran of over forty films, explained that he treats Kim Jong Il’s film manifesto like a bible; Peoples’ Artist Pae Young Sam said he will never forget how Kim Jong Il taught him to write “simple songs, that are easy for the People to sing”; and Cinematographer O Teh Young described the generosity of the Dear Leader: when a movie did well, filmmakers would receive gold Rolexes, apartments and cars.
Yun Su Gyong and the films she starred in: April 25 Military Film Studio, Pyongyang
From a western perspective, many of Kim Jong Il’s movies look old fashioned and clunky, but the passion of their actors, the beauty of their scenery, and the diversity of their stories makes them strangely enchanting. They have a nostalgic kind of beauty, thanks to the fact that they’re still shot on celluloid with post-dubbed sound.
And sure, all of the 24 North Korean films I’ve watched has at least one propaganda speech about the Dear Leader or the Socialist Mission – and many moments where people suddenly burst into song. But the fact that North Korean filmmakers today are making comedies, romances, coming-of-age movies, and family dramas – as well as anti-US military films, was a surprise to me.
It’s all thanks to Kim Jong Il, a man who loved cinema so much, you could say he was an artist who got the wrong job. He was the Eastern Bloc Spielberg: cleverly adapting the western genre films he loved to produce a smorgasbord of thrillers, action pix, rom-coms, monster movies, historical epics, and military shoot-’em-ups.
His films may be propaganda, but they also gave people courage, hope, certainty, novelty, beauty and love.
Anna Broinowski reads Kim Jong Il’s book at the Three Revolutions Museum, Pyongyang.