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.")
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.