Earlier this year, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, a three-hour assemblage of archival footage charting the reign of Romania’s Cold War-era autocrat, showed Ceausescu visiting a fellow communist dictator, North Korea’s Kim Il-sung; the two of them sit side-by-side in a stadium, holding binoculars as “seemingly the entire populace shows up to fete Ceausescu with the halftime show to end all halftime shows,” Nick Pinkerton noted in these pages earlier in the year. The show, featuring incredible color-coordinated crowd choreography and stadium card displays, is, Nick writes, “the spectacle of a hermetically sealed society constructed at every level around showing a single man what he wants to see, giving him the applause that he wants to hear”; it’s one of the moments when “the author of one national simulacrum visiting foreign manufactories of same,” along with Ceausescu’s visit to Hollywood.
Kim Il-sung’s son and heir, Kim Jong-il, who just died, is best known in the West for one especially memorable Hollywood simulacra. Well, turnabout is fair play. Dictatorship is in some respects an extreme form of mis-en-scene, and North Korea was a closed country in denial over the depths of its deprivation under Kim Jong-il, who treated the nation and its people as set dressing and extras for his own cult of personality. He also loved movies as much as any world leader ever has.
Like many sons of dictators, the young Kim Jong-il had an expensive hobby. His was movies; he was said own a personal film library of more 15,000 titles. He was North Korea’s culture minister in the 70s, and famously kidnapped the South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok, forcing him to direct monster movies after five years of reeducation; in Shin’s most famous film, Pulgasari, per Graham Fuller, “a rice doll made by a prisoner, which, coming into contact with blood, grows into a Godzilla-like metal-eating monster (played by the Japanese Godzilla stunt actor Kenpachiro Satsuma); it is believed to be an allegory for the evils of rampant capitalism and the power of collectivism (as represented by peasants).” Kim is also said to have ghost-written and ghost-directed a number of “classic” North Korean films.
Kim wrote a couple of books about the cinema. 1973’s On the Art of Cinema, about merging socialist messages with populist aesthetics, through a filmmaking process in line with socialist principles. (“In the capitalist system of filmmaking, the ‘director’ carries that title, but in fact the right of supervision and control over film production is entirely in the hands of the tycoons of the industry who have the money, whereas the directors are nothing but their agents. [The director] is a mere worker who obeys the will of the industrialists whether he likes it or not.”)
All this is, in its way, pretty irresistible; a couple years ago, when Korea Society screened a couple of very rare Korean films, I was fascinated with the war movie Wolmi Island. “[S]self-sacrifice, an unbroken chain of command and patriotic bathos have as much to do with the [war movie] genre as [they do with the film’s] country of origin,” I wrote at the time, but still, “a close-up of the company commander screaming “Death to US imperialists! FIRE!” plays as something like a money shot” to skeptical Western eyes, as do the softly lit scenes of soldiers sniffing foliage in patriotic rapture.
Last year, Ed Park went back and read many of the twentysomething Kim’s talks and speeches on film (collected in 1990’s Accomplishing Juche Revolutionary Cause). As Park recounts, they’re some unholy mix of party prescription and studio notes:
Continuity is another of Kim’s strong suits. “The actor who played the part of the old man of the village killed in the scene of the sea of blood should not appear again as another man,” he notes. And one can imagine the ice water running through the veins of an unfortunate crooner upon hearing this: “The song, ‘Return Home on the Bright Day of Liberation,’…is not sung well; I wonder who has sung it?” (Or maybe Kim was just exercising his ear for talent: “There is a person who sings this type of song well working for the Radio and TV Broadcasting Committee.”) The awkward combination of concrete prescription and recognizable futzing lends some of these talks the feel of postmodern fiction.
The occasion of Park’s piece was a screening of Jim Finn’s The Juche Idea, which mixes archival footage with delirious pastiche to parody the campily upbeat culture industry of the country with “one of the biggest purported-success to failed reality gaps on the planet,” per Vadim Rizov’s L Mag piece on the film, and an autistically garbled film grammar born of extreme isolation, where “shoveling up the duck dung together and having hands touch on the wheelbarrow is flirtation.”
Kim was on to something, though. Whether or not Woodrow Wilson ever actually described Birth of a Nation as “history writ with lightning,” ideologies have always grappled for control of the most popular, persuasive popular art form (most successfully, of course, in Lenin’s Russia).
In North Korea, which Kim was able to keep largely quarantined for the rest of the world, he had control over the national iconography, which consisted in its most memorable form, glimpsed in Autobiography and Juche Idea, of pageantry and spectacle reinforcing his own power. The massive stadium shows glorify both the collective and the choreographer, just as Wolmi Island, with its patriotic soldiers singing on a suicide mission, conflates the glory of grunt work with the guy at the top of the chain of command.
The Red Chapel, which played here last year, documents a Danish filmmaker’s largely unsuccessful attempts to Borat Kim’s country: he traveled there with two Korean-born Danish comedians, hoping to upset people with uncout performances—”to fight theater with theater,” as Andrew Schenker wrote, reviewing the film for this publication. But they find their entire trip stage-managed by their government minders—which is, in its way, very revealing, as it shows Western provocateurs running up against the polite censorship of low-level functionaries. Where the film does excel, Andrew notes, is in its “documenting of North Korea’s far more successful theatrical project… [represented] on the national stage in the form of a terrifying, fist-pumping anti-American rally.” The rally, with momentous columns of men marching, both in heroic low-angle and balcony’s-eye-view high-angle, is also a staple of The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (to say nothing of, say, Triumph of the Will); in The Red Chapel, the rally is shown both live and in a later TV broadcast. And it’s doubly fascinating for taking place on Pyongyang streets that this otherwise very scrappy documentary has shown to be completely deserted, like the backlot of a bankrupt studio.