The “Dear Leader” is gone, and the internet these days is filled with speculations about what he left behind him. Steppes in Sync would like to take a more unconventional look and reflect on the creative legacy Kim Jong-il left for his compatriots in North Korea and the DPRK buffs around the world.
Before he took over leading the country from his father, Kim Jong-il, an avid film fan, was supervising the country’s movie industry during the 1970s. One of his achievements in this area was the kidnapping of well-regarded South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang Ok and his ex-wife Choi Eun Hee. Kim forced them to make movies for North Korea for 8 years. Before kidnapping Shin, he had forced 11 Japanese “cultural consultants” into work on North Korea’s movies, only to have some of them commit suicide rather than continue on.
Shin and Choi lived in more luxurious circumstances, making a series of films including the North Korean take on godzilla flicks – Pulgasari.
Their “Dear Leader” was building them a mansion and a Hollywood-worthy movie set when the couple went to Vienna to negotiate film distribution rights in 1986. There Shin and Choi eluded their bodyguards, fled to the American embassy, and pled for asylum. Discussions they’d secretly taped with their executive producer were used as proof that they had not gone to North Korea for fame and fortune (as they’d been forced to claim at press conferences).
Per Kim’s instructions, the nation’s cinematic output consisted of films illuminating themes such as North Korea’s fantastic military strength and what horrible people the Japanese are.
According to Korean film expert Johannes Schonherr, even the country’s capital Pyongyang has been developed with films in mind. “It looks like a movie set. It’s not a capital built for living, it’s a capital which is built to show off – something that you can film and transmit to the rest of the country via movies and television.”
“Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important,” the Soviet Union leader Vladimir Lenin famously told his culture commissar in 1919. Kim literally wrote the book on communist filmmaking in 1973 On the Art of the Cinema and is claimed to be such an inspiration for the film and performing arts students in DPRK today. More about this you can read in our previous post My North Korean film classes in humanity and creativity.
Kim himself was less likely to watch films made by the Soviet masters Eisenstein, Vertov, and Pudovkin than those starring his favorite actors, Elizabeth Taylor and Sean Connery. His collection of VHS cassettes and DVDs, said to contain between 15,000 and 30,000 films, supposedly contained all of Taylor’s pictures and all the James Bonds. He also admired Friday the 13th, Rambo, classics by Japanese masters, Hong Kong action films, Westerns, even Britain’s Ealing comedies with their accent on proletarian cooperation.
Kim naturally took grave exception to Western films that depicted North Korea in a less than flattering light. He objected, for instance, to Bond’s torture by North Korean soldiers in Die Another Day (2002), describing it as “insulting to the Korean nation.” He was unimpressed, too, by Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police (2004), in which he is portrayed as a marionette who supplies weapons of mass destruction to terrorists and turns into a cockroach. He never spoke publicly about the film but, via the Korean embassy in Prague, tried to have it banned by the Czech Republic, which refused to cooperate.
A North Korean epic film about a North Korean ship that sank in 1945 was “totally modelled” on Titanic. “The love story is like the love story with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and the director had to watch the real Titanic movie more than 100 times so he could get the Titanic feel into the North Korean version,” says Schonherr.
One of the last times in his lifetime that Kim surfaced in the pop culture outside North Korea was when he was featured in the recent UNHATE campaign by Fabrica, the creative department of the Italian-owned apparel brand the United Colors of Benetton widely (or rather wildly) known for their kiss ads.