Kim Jong Il’s Manifesto of the Perfect Propaganda Film
“Of all the arts,
for us the cinema is the most important.”
Like all socialist countries, North Korea has embraced the power of the propaganda film. It is unique, however, in that it continues to make the same types of propaganda films today.
They are screened to an audience almost totally unaware that other types of films exist – apart from a few Eastern European, Chinese and Third World features that are occasionally shown. This has been slowly changing: the Pyongyang International Film Festival recently showed Bend it like Beckham to great acclaim, and our Associate Producer Nick Bonner’s Belgian/North Korean co-pro, Comrade Kim goes Flying, was a national hit.
North Korean Workers watch an ‘educational film’ at a cinema in Pyongyang
Unlike their audiences, North Korean filmmakers are given access to a wider range of western films. The filmmakers I interviewed for AIM HIGH! had heard of Titanic, The Sound of Music, The Patriot, The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, King of Comedy and The Seven Year Itch. They had not heard of Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino or the Cohen Brothers. And the only western stars they knew by name were Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, and Marilyn Monroe.
This is probably because the western films they are shown are truncated. Western film techniques are considered important to study, but scenes that show western lifestyles and attitudes in detail, are, from what I could gather, mostly edited out.
Projectionist at the April 25 Military Film Studios: Pyongyang
In 1964, Kim Jong Il was given control of the North Korean Film Industry. He made it his mission to modernize the country’s dour propaganda films, partly by adapting the techniques, genres and plots of Hollywood movies, which he secretly loved. He wrote two film instruction manuals, The Cinema and Directing (1987), and On the Art of The Cinema (1973). North Korean filmmakers have been following Kim Jong Il’s film rules ever since.
You can see a short version of Kim Jong Il’s film rules in AIM HIGH IN CREATION!, including the North Korean style propaganda drama we made, ‘The Gardener’.
But 96 minutes was not enough time to do justice to the wonderful and unusual techniques Kim Jong Il invented to create the perfect propaganda film: a film powerful enough to shape the thoughts, desires and dreams of an entire nation.
Here is a detailed breakdown of what he actually wrote.
Kim Jong Il’s Film Bible, ‘The Cinema and Directing’
CHAPTER ONE: THE DIRECTOR IS THE COMMANDER OF THE CREATIVE GROUP
Kim Jong Il explains in this chapter that the Director’s control is total. He or She must run the film like a military general: ensuring that each part of the process, from story concept to picture lock-off, delivers the best film.
In North Korea, the best film is one that is not only of ‘high artistic standards’: it must also help advance ‘the revolutionary socialist cause’, and smash the decadent values of the ‘depraved and corrupt’ capitalist or imperialist enemy.
To succeed, the Director must make sure all cast and crew understand the propaganda message of the film. Which means conducting ideological training sessions with every member of the creative collective, before they even rehearse the script:
“Under the new system of directing, the director is responsible not only for the creative work of the team but also for their political and ideological life. Therefore, he regularly conducts political work and ideological education closely combined with their creative activities and, accordingly, the process of creation becomes that of revolutionising and working-classizing them”.
So how do you ‘working-class-ize’ a bunch of sophisticated, cynical westerners to be honourable socialists in the North Korean mould? Here’s a useful checklist that Kim Jong Il’s father, General Kim Il Sung, came up with in the 1940s, when he was busy waging a bloody guerrilla war against the Japanese forces who had colonised Korea:
How to develop a Revolutionary World Outlook
(according to General Kim Il Sung)
1. Understand the basic nature of the exploiting classes and their society. Hatred for them stems from an understanding of the reactionary nature of capitalist society.
2. Develop a revolutionary determination to fight to the end to overthrow the out dated and corrupt capitalist society, and build a socialist and communist Society, which is free from exploitation and oppression.
3. Acquire the noble ideological and spiritual goals of communists who are guided by their revolutionary understanding and determination.
If it’s all going well, take your actors and crew further. Make them memorise and put into practice the following six rules:
How to become a True Communist
1. Cultivate a strong will power which cannot be broken by any adversity
2. Acquire a rich experience of revolutionary struggle.
3. Master the revolutionary struggle’s methods through constant ideological struggle, self-improvement, and practical struggle.
4. Learn to love one’s country and people ardently.
5. Value one’s political organization and comrades.
6. Strictly observe organisational discipline.
At first, your cast and crew will find it hard at first to throw away their materialistic habits, suppress their egos, and sacrifice their artistic independence for the great revolutionary film that is their goal.
I know this from our time following Kim Jong Il’s instructions for AIM HIGH! When socialist boot camp instructor, Dr. Grisha Dolgopolov, made everyone throw their Nokias, i-pads and Nikes in the ‘capitalist trash can’, put on orange overalls, and crawl reverentially towards a massive portrait of the Dear Leader on Bondi Beach, the actors almost staged a revolution of their own.
But take heart, dear comrade. You’re allowed to make mistakes along the way. As Kim Il Sung himself said,
“There are no born revolutionaries, nor are there any perfect revolutionaries.”
KIM IL SUNG
‘The Gardener’ actors on Bondi beach in communist training
CHAPTER TWO: ONE MUST AIM HIGH IN CREATION!
“The ideological kernel of a production is the seed which the director and creative workers bring into flower through their collective efforts and wisdom. When all interpretations are conducted on the basis of this seed, they form one cinematic presentation because they are built on one foundation. The director should be very careful that none of the creative team loses the seed or introduces anything which has nothing to do with it.”
Kim Jong Il wrote very poetically about the importance of ‘the seed’, or Songza of the film. He described it as springing up, like a tree from a pinecone. In the West, the Songza is basically what we call the ‘twenty five word Hollywood pitch’: ie what your film is about.
The most important rule here is know your Songza. You cannot ‘aim high!’, which in North Korea, means making a film so powerful it advances the revolution and destroys a few enemies along the way, without first making sure your creative comrades are clear about the seed.
The easy part is that unlike in the West, where there are as many seeds for movies as there are genres in which to make them, there only appear to be five main Songza, when you are making a propaganda film in the North Korean style.
Based on the films I’ve studied, which range from noir thrillers, melodramas, rom-coms and monster pix to big budget Military Shoot ‘Em ups, here they are:
The People United will Never be Defeated. (most common in War movies).
The Person who sacrifices personal happiness for the good of her family, village, or country will be rewarded with glory – but only after much hardship and pain. (If she dies, her reward will be to be remembered as a ‘Peoples’ Hero’.)
He who leaves his village to seek fame and fortune in the bright lights of the city will always come to a sticky end.
Beware of hating your absent Father or Husband: he might be secretly sacrificing himself for the good of the nation.
The Person who covets possessions and status will be slowly destroyed in a nasty way – until his lover or a heroic older person makes him see the light and join the noble cause.
This final seed is one of the most common, in North Korean films made in the late 1990s, during the famine that starved over two million people. They center around a character I’ll call ‘The Awakened Hero’ – which is played by Matt Zeremes, in our North Korean propaganda short, The Gardener. During the 90s famine, Kim Jong Il promoted the Awakened Hero in his films, and the ‘Foreign Enemy’ in his speeches (the USA was running punishing trade sanctions against North Korea at the time), to keep his people strong:
“When they see the process of growth by which the hero is awakened to class consciousness and takes up the struggle, imbued with bitter hatred for the enemy, the audience will realise the true meaning of revolution and why revolution is necessary, and they will be convinced that everyone can work for the revolution if they are determined, indeed, that they must do so”.
Your motive for making a North Korean-style propaganda film may be totally different to the Dear Leader’s. But what’s important is that when choosing the seed for your film, you must Aim High. Your ultimate objective is not to entertain people, but to change the world:
“The real objective of cinematic art is not merely to enhance people’s awareness of the world, but to develop them as communist revolutionaries and accelerate the pace of the revolution.”
CHAPTER THREE: EMOTIONS SHOULD BE WILL DEFINED IN DIRECTING
“A film which aims to profit by showing off the Stars’ faces cannot be real art. Capitalist cinema, which promotes a few ‘popular Stars’ to curry favour with the audience, is a reactionary art form which reduces the stars to puppets and film to a commodity. There cannot be genuine creative spirit, the beautiful flower of art cannot bloom, where actors sell their faces and even their souls.”
In this Chapter, Kim Jong Il rejects the vanity and commercialism of the western star system and spells out the rigorous rules that all actors must follow, if they want to earn their hallowed place as ‘the face’ of the superior socialist propaganda movie.
Here are the main ones. Actors must:
“An actor who portrays a revolutionary should work and struggle like a revolutionary in his own life. His creative endeavours should fill 24 hours of his day. He should not separate creative work from his private life. He should foster the habit of living through struggling and struggling even as he lives.”
Love the Working Class.
“In order to understand, accept and truly experience the ideas and emotions of the working class and the other labouring masses, an actor requires a warm love for his class and people and a passionate devotion to the revolution. An actor who does not love the working class cannot understand its revolutionary spirit, and an actor who does not love his people cannot assimilate their ideas and emotions.”
Be ideologically fit.
“If an actor considers his good looks to be a gift of destiny and does not make any efforts to develop his ideological understanding and improve his acting he will be weeded out before long. As the saying goes, even jade has to be polished to make it shine, and the better an actor looks, the harder he should work on his ideological development and acting training, in order constantly to improve his screen face.”
Be easy on the eye (unless playing a villain).
“Since actors have the noble duty of appearing before people in order to educate them, they should be beautiful both ideologically and physically, although of course the same could be said of anyone. An actor who is not ideologically sound and whose features are not beautiful cannot present a noble portrayal of anyone.”
Never show off.
“When the actor knows ten elements of truth, he should express three or four. If he only knows three or four but tries to express ten, he is like someone drawing a puppy when he intended to draw a tiger.”
CHAPTER FOUR: ACTING DEPENDS ON THE DIRECTOR
“Through his overall study of the actor’s creative activities and the social, political, cultural and moral aspects of his life, the director can understand his ideological preparedness, his views on life and art, his creative individuality, his merits and faults in acting and comprehend all his qualities.”
Kim Jong Il knew that even great actors, in the wrong hands, end up looking bad. Which is why he devoted a whole chapter to things the Director needs to do, to make sure the actors deliver.
His rules centre around how the director must understand the importance of research in the actor’s process, and help facilitate it. This is exactly what Stanislavsky and Stella Adler wrote about. We call it Method.
The main rule, for actors playing the working-class hero (the hero of a North Korean propaganda movie is almost always working-class) is simple:
The best way to research your role is to live it.
“Everywhere an actor can find life which he should observe, experience and study closely. In the first place, it is important for him to actually go and live in a busy ironworks or a cooperative farm. At the same time, the actor’s home life should be exemplary. He should participate conscientiously in the business of his neighbourhood unit, attend parents’ meetings at school, and stand duty at his workplace. All these are essential elements of the process by which the actor accumulates experience of life.”
What Kim Jong Il says about villains is more interesting. Every North Korean propaganda movie must have a villain, because you can’t portray the revolutionary struggle without one. But in present day North Korea, there are no villains left to destroy.
This is because they’ve all been kicked out. North Korea has been a ‘socialist paradise’ since 1953, when the ‘invading Yankee bastards’, according to North Korean history books, surrendered to the heroic Korean people, then slunk out of town. General Kim Il Sung had already destroyed the ‘Japanese Imperialist swine’ who occupied North Korea before the Americans tried to take over – so since 1953, North Korea has had no bad guys.
This is why so many North Korean films are period pix, featuring barbaric American Soldiers, Evil Japanese Landlords, and South Korean Mercenary Puppets. In North Korean films set after 1953, the villains have been replaced by a different kind of bad guy: the enemy of socialism. These enemies are North Koreans, who are failing in some way – either their village (which they want to leave), their workplace (where they are not working hard enough), or, most seriously, The Dear Leader himself (by not acting in the best interests of The People, and therefore ignoring his most honoured teachings).
For North Korean actors playing American and Japanese bastards, (often with the aid of red wigs or black spectacles), research options are limited. They can’t travel overseas to study the enemy first hand. Instead, Kim Jong Il says they should:
Go to a Museum.
“Even though an actor may have a vague idea of what the exploitative society is like, he will have no personal experience of exploitation and oppression and will not have been personally involved in carrying out the revolution. This applies particularly to young actors who have grown up in socialist society. It is therefore no easy task to create a faithful depiction of life in pre-Revolutionary times. In order to make good this gap in their experience, actors need to read many excellent literary works, especially revolutionary novels, and conduct their lives like revolutionaries. Visiting historical museums and revolutionary sites can provide actors with invaluable insights into life.”
When Kim Jong Il writes about what an actor playing a bad guy must feel about his role, things get even stranger:
To Act A Villain, You Must Hate Him.
“No revolutionary actor has ever actually been a Japanese policeman, landowner or capitalist, nor could he become such a person. But the actor must portray him, and he can do so faithfully. To effectively embody the hateful enemy the actor requires an ardent love of his class and people and a burning hostility towards the enemy. He must have an intense, deeply rooted hatred for the enemy in order to achieve a genuinely profound insight into their reactionary nature, a keen understanding of their anti-popular nature and the vileness of their actions. If he cannot gaze straight into the enemy’s eyes with a feeling of burning hatred, he will not feel the brutality in his bones, and will forget their crimes Thus, even in portraying the class enemy, the actor’s level of ideological awareness is decisive, and, moreover, the depth and faithfulness of the actor’s experience of the character are determined by his own outlook on the world.”
This is the opposite of what actors do in the West. It’s accepted from Hollywood stars down that the best way to play a bad guy is to discover what’s good about him, and when playing a good guy, to concentrate his faults. This way, you deliver a layered and believable performance.
Kim Jong Il’s rule that the actor playing the villain has to hate his character with his heart and soul led to some pretty interesting moments for Peter O’Brien, who played the evil, gas-fracking Miner in The Gardener…
CHAPTER FIVE: EXACTING DEMANDS SHOULD BE MADE IN FILMING AND ART DESIGN
“A cameraman should be able to use small things
to portray a great thing, and use a few things
to depict many things.”
KIM JONG IL
North Korean propaganda films have limited themes, given they are all ultimately about the Socialist Hero defeating the capitalist/imperialist/class Enemy. But the surprising thing is, they can cover a wide range of genres and stories.
There are noir thrillers (Unsung Heroes), bodice-ripping melodramas (Flowergirl), rom-coms (Urban Girl Gets Married), satirical dramas (Two Families of Hang Dong), historical epics (Sea of Blood), true-story political biopics (Country I Saw), monster movies (Pugasari), coming of age movies (Schoolgirl’s Diary), female buddy films (Do People Know You), chopsocky action pix (Hong Kil Dong) and Big Budget Military Shoot Em ups (Wollmi Island).
In this chapter, Kim Jong Il sets out how a good propaganda film must look. Based on the interviews I did with North Korea’s top DOPs and designers, here’s a summary.
1. Shoot on Celluloid.
As explained in THE EXPLODING SOUND RECORDIST Blog, North Korean features are still shot on 35mm film. For The Gardener, this ended up being impossible; the film labs in Sydney had shut up shop. So we shot instead on the Arri Alexa, in a wide angle format, using 70s film lenses.
2. Do not use expensive and ‘decadent’ western technology when basic camera techniques can tell the story.
Kim Jong Il is big on simplicity – locked off tripod shots, no complex dolly moves, no fast cutting, and very few cranes. He disses the tricky shots and focus-pulls of contemporary Western films as being ‘showy without substance’. But I think another factor behind this is economic: North Korea doesn’t have access to expensive Western technology. They are still shooting in a 1950s environment. This has delivered films of great elegance, with beautifully composed mise en scene wides, and scenes played simply within the frame – like Flowergirl. In other North Korean films, however, the approach looks amateur and old fashioned.
3. Do not use too many close ups.
For Kim Jong Il, the power of the close up must be used sparingly. This makes total sense – his films are still made for the big screen, not TV. Close ups, if they are too frequent, can get in the way of cinematic engagement. He’s big on making the actors tell the story through their bodies – to physicalize the action in wide shots, rather than close ups. I like this rule. It particularly works for comedy – and it’s also theatrical, in an old fashioned but appealing way.
4. Use lots of natural light.
Once again, there’s an economic reason behind using natural light where you can, rather than costly lighting rigs. In North Korean films, there are lots of scenes where people sing in the great outdoors, or talk on park benches, or work happily in the fields. They’ve been shot without lights – but North Korean landscapes are generally so beautiful and unpolluted, and the light is so soft, that this rule has delivered great results. The interiors of North Korean movies made between the early 70s – mid 80s, are especially beautifully lit. This was when North Korean Film was in its heyday, and DOPs had big budgets to play with. It shows.
5. Crash Zooms are an important emotional tool.
One of the first things that struck me when I watched the North Korean DVDs I took home from my first trip to Pyongyang is how much they use the zoom. We’re talking massive, 70s-style 10:1 zooms – crashing in from vast wides of tiny figures on cliffs, right in to their faces. At other times, the camera will zoom in to someone and go out of focus, or drift slowly out from a tear-stained close-up of the suffering heroine to a lonely wide, of her sitting abandoned on a misty mountain. Once again, zooms are cheaper to do than complex tracks. DOP Geoffrey Simpson and I had a lot of fun resurrecting the very un-hip 70s crash zoom in The Gardener.
6. The Cinematographer can harm or help the ideology of the film.
A wonderful North Korean DOP talks in AIM HIGH! about how important it is that the DOP understand the ideological message of the film. This makes sense: image is power in propaganda filmmaking. The way in which we respond to the villain and hero depends on how they are lit and framed. It wasn’t hard to get my Australian crew behind the ideological message of The Gardener – they fell in love with Sydney Park while filming in it, and worked hard to make sure the way we shot it mirrored the fantasy-like quality of the landscapes in North Korean dramas BellFlower and We Met on Mount Myohyang.
7. Start small, end big.
One thing Kim Jong Il always had at his disposal, free of charge, is extras. You see them running through frame in their thousands in the revolutionary battle in Sea of Blood, storming the battlements of the evil Korean Lord in Pulgasari, and singing happy songs about the Dear Leader, in matching white hats, in Schoolgirl’s Diary. In many North Korean movies, especially those based on the seed that ‘The People United will Never be Defeated’, the story will start small, with a domestic dilemma (the Heroine is oppressed by a capitalist/ imperialist/ class enemy); and end big, with the same Heroine leading a cast of thousands to defeat the enemy in a heroic victory. The final scenes of Wolmi Island and Unattached Unit are proof that ‘ending big’ can have exhilarating results.
Thanks to the protesters who turned out to make the human sign against CSG in Sydney Park, we had our own cast of thousands for The Gardener. When DART Energy cancelled their plan to drill in the park, we also had real-life proof that sometimes, the People United really can’t be Defeated.
8. Explosions and fight scenes are good.
North Koreans do special effects in camera. These can be truly spectacular – the final naval battle in Wolmi Island is brilliant. Like extras, military hardware comes free in North Korean movie making – which usually doesn’t happen in the West, even if you’re Jerry Bruckheimer.
North Koreans also love fight scenes. Some of the best Taekwondo stunts I’ve seen has been North Korean. Hong Kil Dong is full of gob-smackingly difficult, beautifully choreographed, full-on stoushes. In Pyongyang Nalpharam, some fighting is done by women, and plays a lot like a North Korean Kill Bill: with the ‘good’ Peasant girl beating the shit out of the ‘evil’ witch lady, complete with slomo kicks and crash zooms onto bloody mouths. In ‘self reliant’ Juche style, actors Peter O’Brien and Matt Zeremes did their own Taekwondo stunts for the final fight scene in The Gardener, without padding or a single crash mat. They kicked ass.
9. Embrace SloMo, Wipes, Dissolves and the Freeze Frame.
North Korean films do not use the hyper real, hand-held, doc aesthetic western films use to make you forget you’re watching fiction. North Korean cinema is artful, constructed, and in its best incarnations, uplifting. Comedies use freeze frames and hokey wipes for comic effect; while melodramas like The Flowergirl, which is otherwise elegantly shot, has one weird montage of superimposed flashbacks, swirling around the Japanese landlord’s head, as she is tormented by the evil things she’s done to the humble heroine.
North Korean dramas often use a pull to soft focus, a long dissolve, or a circular wipe, to move us from one scene to another. And the fight scenes in every film I’ve watched use a lot of slomo – complete with those super fake sounding chopsocky punch effects. So don’t be scared to go retro, or even cheesy. The North Koreans do. Their actors are so committed and sincere, they almost always get away with it.
When they see a film, people try to learn from and imitate not only the words and actions of the positive characters, but even their costumes and hand-props.
KIM JONG IL
Kim Jong Il wrote pages about the noble art of Make Up, and the importance of using politically symbolic ‘Hand Props’. He says the usual things about make-up looking ‘natural’ and sets looking believable. But once again, limited budgets may be the reason. The actresses we met in AIM HIGH! said they sometimes do their own make-up. And the movies we filmed were being made mostly on real locations (including a real captured US spy-ship), rather than expensive sets.
For films set back in the Bad Old Days, before Korea was liberated from the Japanese imperialists, American warmongers, and Feudal Overlords (ie anything before 1953), Kim Jong Il built four exterior sets at the Pyongyang Film Studios. There is a street set for Korea under ‘Evil Japan’, a whole village for ‘Ancient Korea’, some buildings with goat paddocks for ‘Imperialist Europe’, and an alley full of bars, cafes and massage parlours for ‘Decadent South Korea’ under American rule.
Kim Jong Il stresses the importance of differentiating between heroes (or ‘positive characters’), and villains (the ‘ugly’ ones). When making a socialist propaganda movie, it is crucial your working-class heroes are likeable and the capitalist/imperialist/ enemy is despised. If the audience walks out liking the villains and bored by the heroes, the film has failed. As Kim Jong Il says:
“The class position and ideological and mental state of a character are all clearly revealed in the forms, patterns, ornaments, and colours of his costume and hand props. A character’s economic circumstances as reflected in his costumes and hand props, makes his general class position clear, while his tastes and hobbies again as manifested in the forms, patterns, ornaments and colours of his costume and hand props, demonstrate his class character and ideological and moral state in subtle detail.”
Here are the two main design rules to ensure your North Korean-style film is a success:
1. The Hero’s costumes, home and hand props must be noble but humble, and desirable.
2. The Villain’s costumes, home and hand props must be gaudy, tasteless, and undesirable.
For the look of the villains in The Gardener, production designer Andrew Raymond took his queues from the gaudy, metallic fabrics worn by the evil landlords in North Korean historical melodrama, Flowergirl, to create the shiny suits and chemical blue logos of the gas miners (played by Peter O’Brien and Matt Zeremes).
Peter O’Brien and Matt Zemeres in a scene from ‘The Gardener’
For the working-class heroes played by Susan Prior and Elliott Weston, there was a wealth of ‘noble but humble’ looks to draw from. Almost every North Korean heroine, from the wise chairwoman in 90s satire Do People Know You, to the self-sacrificing village worker in Bell Flower, wear organically toned work clothes, ranging from gentle beiges and browns to pastel green.
The floral headscarf Andrew chose for Susan was a nod to that Soviet-era, socialist heroine look that North Korean movies (especially ones about farmers) seem to favour. The designer we interviewed for AIM HIGH! politely admitted he knew nothing about ‘Australian customs’, but still thought we should give Susan’s character a headscarf. We ran with it.
Susan Prior in ‘The Gardener’
CHAPTER SIX: THE BEST USE SHOULD BE MADE OF MUSIC AND SOUND
“Films without Music hardly deserve to be called films.
A film without songs gives one a feeling of loneliness
and is tantamount to a play with only dialogue.
A truly fine film, which will appeal to the people,
must always have good songs.”
KIM IL SUNG
”My first love is Music.”
KIM JONG IL
North Korean composer Pae Young Sam
Peoples’ Artist Pae Young Sam, whose hit song ‘My Happiness’ made him one of Kim Jong Il’s favourite composers, is a generous and passionate man. He likes Vivaldi, Mozart and Morricone, but also loves traditional Korean music, which he has incorporated into many film scores – including the operatic song he wrote for Susan Prior’s Heroine in The Gardener.
North Korean singer with orchestra
Pae Young Sam is not so fond of Western ‘rap’ or ‘techno’, which he says is too frenetic to move People. Moving the People is exactly what Kim Jong Il was on about, when he wrote that good songs are the most powerful element of any successful propaganda film:
All arts emerge from life, but music, in particular, and also dance, are more closely linked to life than any other art because they have emerged directly from the work environment and have been practiced and enjoyed there. In our socialist society in particular, where the people are masters of the country, work itself brings the joy of creation and life itself is a beautiful song.
One of the most unusual aspects of the North Korean propaganda movie is that people are always bursting into song. They can be about to die on a battlefield, or pining for a lost lover on a beach, or picking apples in an orchard, or shovelling manure in a commune –but they are always happy to down tools and have a good sing.
These songs are more often about the joys of socialist effort, and the glory of the Motherland, than individual feelings. If they are personal, then they invariably involve a loving reference to The Dear Leader or the Revolutionary cause.
Music is so important to Kim Jong Il that there is a specific song for each type of scene:
“Every situation requires its own particular musical expression. One requires a Labour song for when one is at work, and a militant song for when one is fighting the enemy. This is why from ancient times there have always been labour songs and war songs. Only when film music both conforms with the spirit of the times and suits the specific situation depicted can it pluck at the people’s heartstrings. “
As well as war and labour songs, there are also Songs of Lost Love, Songs of Motherly Sorrow, Songs of Group Sacrifice, Songs of Friendship, Songs of Nature, Songs of the Homeland, and even Songs about the virtues of delaying Marriage to be a Tractor Driver.
‘The Tractor Driver’ song from ‘The Broad Bellflower’
As seen in THE EXPLODING SOUND RECORDIST Blog, North Koreans don’t use sinc sound. So if you want to create an authentic Kim Jong Il-style propaganda film, make sure you actors lip-sinc their song (or gaze meaningfully into the distance while the song is playing), and record a professional singer to do it later.
Here is a summary of Kim Jong Il’s most important rules for using music in film:
1. Every great film must have at least one song.
2. If there is more than one Song, each must celebrate a different endeavour: eg fighting the enemy; tilling the fields; loving one’s native home; enjoying a revolutionary holiday; relishing the beauty of Nature.
3. Avoid Love songs about a person: unless that person is The Dear Leader.
4. Every song should be simple enough for the People to sing:
Good ballads are short, simple, easy to understand and easy to sing. They contain no extraneous elements of ornament or style, no caprice or whimsy. The distinctive features which express the genuine artistic value of popular songs lie in the fact that on hearing them, one feels drawn to sing them and the more one sings them, the more profoundly and freshly one senses their meaning.
5. The main song should be repeated throughout the film to strengthen its message:
A song has such great ideological and emotional influence on people that it stirs people’s hearts and inspires them in the struggle to create a new life.
6. It is totally acceptable to dub the actors with a professional singer.
CHAPTER SEVEN: THE SECRET OF DIRECTING LIES IN EDITING
Editing is a dark and beautiful art. All Editors share a secret: if they practice their craft well enough, the audience will never know the deceits and illusions that have been used to shape the way they think and feel.
As an A-grade propagandist, Kim Jong Il understood the manipulative power of the edit. He covers the things western filmmakers know: scenes should be cut for flow and sense, and the film shaped into a dramatically satisfying whole. His most unusual rule derives from the fact that North Koreans still make films in a slower, pre-digital mind set. They have been sealed off, for sixty years and counting, from the accelerated pace with which we process images and stories in the post-celluloid West.
Here is Kim Jong Il’s most unusual editing rule:
Use one cut per scene.
I’ve seen many North Korean films where there are more than one cut per scene – this rule is almost impossible to stick to, over 90 plus minutes. But on the whole, North Korean cinema is edited much more simply and slowly than western movies. The preference is for action to happen within frame, rather than cutting between mids, cus and wides. The long, single take conversations in Kurosawa’s Rashumon gives you a good sense of the editing aesthetic Kim Jong Il prefers.
As for the difference between the way the North Koreans tell their stories, and the way we do it in the hyped-up Free World, one of the DOPs we interviewed in AIM HIGH! made an interesting observation. Even in North Korea, younger filmmakers (who I didn’t meet) are moving towards faster cut stories. He suggested this might be because human emotions have sped up too: “There’s a lot of cutting in recent movies. We have a lot of those scenes as well, but we try one-scene-one-cut to maintain the same emotional line. This is how our Supreme General instructed us. Even if it’s not one-scene-one-cut, it’s better to have a continuous feel to the emotion of the characters. In recent films, there are many cuts and they are fast. They emphasise the speed. The emotions of the characters are very different to the past. Emotions are quicker, and I think shooting is following the speed in which the human emotions are changing. But older people, they like smooth transition.”
CHAPTER EIGHT: THE ASSISTANT DIRECTOR IS A CREATIVE WORKER
The title of this chapter IS Kim Jong Il’s rule for how a First AD must act on a North Korean movie set. In summing it up, Kim Jong Il declares war on the way oppressed First ADs are treated by their evil tycoon bosses in the decadent West:
“The post of assistant director was originally established under the capitalist system of filmmaking. But under this system, the ‘assistant director’ is not a creative worker. Like all other artists, the ‘assistant director’ is tied to the purse strings of the tycoons of the film industry. Moreover, he is not allowed to express any views of his own in the course of the creative work; he is just a kind of ‘servant’ who blindly carries out the instructions of the ‘director’, and even has to attend him in his private life. He is in the position of a humble lackey who liaises between the director and other people, and curries favour with them. In short, his position is that of a servant, shackled to both the filmmaking industrialists and the ‘director’.”
Umm…I do not think our first AD on The Gardener, Tom Reid, felt like a lackey. Not once did he get me coffee, or attend to my ‘private life’. In fact, Tom ran the set – right down to keeping the zombies of Erskineville village out of frame (see THE HAPPY VILLAGE OF ERSKINEVILLE Blog). Our North Korean filmmaking friends would be probably delighted to know that Western First ADs are no more oppressed than theirs (and a lot less oppressed, if you factor in the lives they lead when not on set).
First AD, Tom Reid, on the set of ‘The Gardener’
What’s most interesting about this rule is that Kim Jong Il wrote it to address the culture of bureaucratic inaction that plagued North Korean film sets, before he took over the industry in 1964. Back then, the First AD was a party apparatchik, who stood in the corner and observed, then reported back to the officials.
Kim Jong Il threw this out and demanded that the First AD actively work on ensuring that each shot was set up properly, the extras were wrangled, and the director was happy. Nowadays, being a First AD in North Korea is the way in which ambitious young men (and few, if any, women) eventually become Directors.