North Korea’s surprisingly prolific movie industry


It may come as a big surprise to some, but the internationally isolated and politically ostracized country of North Korea has long boasted an extraordinarily prolific movie industry. Founded in 1947, the state-owned Korean Film Studio maintains a lot comprising more than one million square meters (approx. 10.8 million square feet) in a Pyongyang suburb and is annually shelling out a staggering amount of propaganda, documentary and feature films, as well as TV programs.

Production values are rather good and frequently on par with studio outputs in the region’s more Western-oriented countries such as South Korea, Japan, India and Thailand. Particularly the quality of feature films often impresses thanks to creative plots, innovative screenwriting and masterful cinematography.

Yet another production facility is the Korea April 26 Children’s Film Studio, established in 1957. It is exclusively responsible for producing films that appeal to youngsters, including animation, puppet films and TV series. The studio even comprises a modern 3D-rendering and processing department.

Meanwhile, the Korea Film Import & Export Corporation, an entity under the country’s Ministry of Culture, is solely responsible for the export of local and import of foreign movies, but also facilitates co-productions with foreign filmmakers.

A Flying Coal Miner
One such recent project is the 2013 romantic drama Comrade Kim Goes Flying, a co-production between North Korea (producer: Ryom Mi Hwa), Belgium (producer: Anja Daelemans) and the United Kingdom (producer: Nicholas Bonner). The film tells the story of (female) coal miner Kim Yong Mi, who since childhood dreamt of becoming a circus acrobat. She eventually meets a famous trapeze artist, who encourages her to realize her dream. However, it turns out that Yong Mi suffers from vertigo. Despite being mocked by her peers, she continues working hard and successfully overcomes her impairment, in the process even falling in love with her most hostile critic, an arrogant but handsome fellow trapeze star.

Comrade Kim Goes Flying convinces not only through the fine performances of its main cast, but also because it depicts the up and downs of an aspiring working-class girl and her family environment in Communist North Korea in a surprisingly open and transparent manner. The movie was screened at several film festivals last year, including Kerala (India), Vancouver (Canada), Ljubljana (Slovenia), and Rehoboth Beach (Delaware, USA), and also was entered in the competition at the 2013 Asia Pacific Screen Awards (Australia).                      

Pyongyang Fest Eyes 14th Installment
If North Korea’s movie industry seems a surprise, the existence of a lavish, bi-annual film festival in the country’s capital may raise even a few more eyebrows. But the Pyongyang International Film Festival (PIFF) is by no means a recently devised image-boosting event or even attention-begging publicity stunt. Inaugurated in 1986, the festival is going to see its 14th installment this year, scheduled to take place Sept. 17-24. As in the past, it will be sponsored by the Korean Film Studio, the Korea Film Import & Export Corporation, and Koryo Tours, the only tour operator exclusively authorized to bring foreign visitors to the secluded country.

Besides North Korean productions, PIFF previously was restricted to foreign movies from “non-aligned and other developing countries” only. But in 2002 the festival transformed into a truly international event when it finally admitted movies from all countries worldwide regardless of their respective forms of government or political ideologies. As a result, submission guidelines and required paperwork also have become much less stringent.

This year’s event will comprise an Opening Ceremony including a red-carpet event for attending local and international stars, a Feature Film Competition, a Documentary and Short Film Competition, a roster of non-competition screenings, a Film Exchange, and of course the Awards Gala on the last evening. Although the final competition lineup is expected to be officially announced only a few days before the festival’s start, a considerable number of international productions have already been submitted, according to the organizers. Among the movies confirmed for screening in the non-competition section are Comrade Kim Goes Flying (see above), as well as foreign productions Bend It Like Beckham (2002), French documentary March of the Penguins (2005), and U.K./U.S. co-production Bride & Prejudice (2004), all of which will be shown for the very first time in North Korea.

While foreigners are usually strictly prohibited from attending public movie screenings in North Korean cinemas, foreign participants and guests attending PIFF are granted the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to mingle with the general public in designated theatres.

Interested parties can visit the official PIFF website for further event information or to download submission guidelines, submission forms, visa application forms, invitation letters and all other related documentation.

Editor's note: This column originally reported erroneously that the hit films The Berlin File and Secretly Greatly were North Korean productions exported to South Korea. In fact, they are South Korean productions about North Korea, and South Korea does not import films from North Korea. We apologize for the error.
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