Kim Jong-il loves movies so much that, in the 70s, in his role as the overseer of North Korea’s film industry, he kidnapped the South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and forced him to direct Socialist monster movies for the better part of a decade; he is said to own prints of over 15,000 films, and in 1973 wrote a 330-page monograph entitled On the Art of Cinema. Given North Korea’s hermetic aura, and Kim’s somewhat, shall we say, comical pop-cultural reputation, the Korea Society’s series of extremely rare North Korean films — screenings every Thursday this month — will be of interest for several reasons, not all of them entirely academic. Tomorrow night’s film, Wolmi Island, concerns a single artillery company holding off MacArthur for three days before the assault on Inchon (a frequent subject for the epic-folly filmmaking forays of Korean cults of personality), and, given the giggle-stiffling atmosphere, a close-up of the company commander screaming “Death to US imperialists! FIRE!” plays as something like a money shot. But taking Wolmi Island for Communist camp is an inadequate response, especially when self-sacrifice, an unbroken chain of command and patriotic bathos have as much to do with the film’s genre as its country of origin. What makes Wolmi Island more propaganda than art, ultimately, is its didactic-to-the-point-of-brainwashing conflation of the Korean nation with Kim Il-sung; multiply this movie by every aspect of day-to-day existence and you start to get a mental picture of life in North Korea.
Our hero is the ranking officer. (The Korea Society’s notes suggest that he’s played by the director, Cho Kyong-sun.) Company Commander is a man both of the people — rhythmically applauded by his men in the mess hall — and above them, isolated in the frame and with face-popping lighting; the burden of command separates him from the ordinary grunts, like the broad, humble cook (most of the rest of the supporting cast could have used a little more Fulleresque one-quirk characterization). As the nature of their (suicide) mission becomes clear, the men just follow his orders, bravely and without complaint. They prepare for martyrdom by listening to the patriotic ode sang by their chirpy, teenage (female) radio officer; this is a war movie with musical interludes, like Serge Bozon’s recent La France — though in that movie, company singalongs were a respite from the horrors of war, not a jolly buck-up. (In a series of close-ups into flashbacks, soldiers remember sweethearts and daughters; this seems to make them more willing to die for their country, not less.)
But Company Commander, too, is a good solider: it never occurs to him to express anger or despair to his commanding officer; he accepts his superior’s explanations for the insufficient ammo without complaint. And his commanding officer is just another rung on the ladder: both of them nod as the senior officer says, of Kim Il-sung, “He is our motherland.” During this scene, I seem to have written, on my notes, something about how “Hierarchical plot structure already strongly implies mens’ willingness to die for the Great Man; explicit explanation unnecessary.” It is unclear what movie I thought I was watching when I wrote this.
Because this is, after all, a film that repeats lessons already learned: Company Commander is seen at sunset, sniffing wheat in a rapture of mother(land)-love, but has to have a subordinate remind him of the motivating power of nationalistic fervor. (A fervor notably absent from the US spy — naturally played and dubbed by a North Korean actor — that is captured and reeducated.)
Director Cho tends to background scenes with breaking waves, or foliage that the characters might fondle in absentminded patriotic rapture. Actors are generally arrayed side-by-side against, for that extra-stagey feel — fewer two-shots might integrate the cast and the sets (locations?) a bit better than Cho’s occasional hesitant pans and zero-to-sixty zooms. Battle scenes are staged in foxholes and gun encampments, with cutaways to the burning silhouettes of the American fleet — movies about the artillery, alas, are never very kinetic. And when, finally, the last artillery shell is spent and the few survivors prepare for hand-to-hand combat, Cho fades out, so that, like Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, we don’t see Company Commander die. (Given the movie’s subject, this seems perhaps disingenuous.)
The series concludes next Thursday night, the 28th, with one of the most beloved of all North Korean films, 1972’s The Flower Girl, “a tragic story of a family cruelly exploited by the Japanese colonial authorities and a clarion call for the Korean people to fight for the socialist revolution.” The credited directors are Choi Ik-gyu and Pak Hak — but the film is rumored to have been ghost-directed by Kim Jong-Il himself.