Kim Jong-il had 20,000 Hol­ly­wood DVDS — but then North Kore­ans love cin­ema, writes Chris Evans

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - The In­de­pen­dent

ANNA Broinowski, an Aus­tralian doc­u­men­tary-maker, was given un­prece­dented ac­cess to some of North Korea’s top se­crets but, for once, it wasn’t to do with pol­i­tics or nu­clear weapons.

In­stead, she went to un­cover the fas­ci­nat­ing, if some­what un­usual, world of North Korean cin­ema, con­trolled for so many years by the na­tion’s ‘‘ Creative Com­man­der’’, for­mer supreme leader Kim Jong-il.

The doc­u­men­tary Aim High In Cre­ation, cur­rently in post-pro­duc­tion, be­gan as Broinowski’s mis­sion to cre­ate a short film fol­low­ing the rules laid out in the for­mer North Korean leader’s trea­tise, Man­i­festo on the Art of the Cin­ema.

‘‘ A friend brought back a copy from North Korea as a present. It was this per­fect, util­i­tar­ian, bound, work­man­like vol­ume,’’ says Broinowski, who is best known for the 2007 doc­u­men­tary For­bid­den Lie$, which in­ves­ti­gated the Jor­da­nian-born author Norma Khouri and her (dis­cred­ited) book For­bid­den Love.

‘‘ I was im­me­di­ately in­trigued by the me­chan­ics of mak­ing a so­cial­ist pro­pa­ganda movie. At the same time, there was a gas com­pany try­ing to drill in a park 200m from where I live in the mid­dle of Syd­ney. So I de­cided to make a pro­pa­ganda movie, fol­low­ing to the let­ter Kim Jong-il’s rather coun­ter­cul­tural tech­niques, to stop the gas line.’’

But what be­gan as an ex­er­cise in pro­pa­ganda soon snow­balled into some­thing much big­ger when Broinowski turned to se­nior fig­ures in North Korean film for ad­vice. Flat­tered that any­one from the West was in­ter­ested in their film­mak­ing tech­niques, they were only too happy to help.

Af­ter an ini­tial vet­ting process, Broinowski and Aim High’s pro­ducer, Lizzette Atkins, were given ac­cess to the en­tire North Korean film in­dus­try, in­clud­ing the chance to speak to top di­rec­tors, ac­tors and edi­tors, and shoot footage on the sets of their movies. This then changed their en­tire fo­cus to a full doc­u­men­tary ex­plor­ing North Korean cin­ema with the short pro­pa­ganda film slot­ted in at the end. En route they came across a host of un­usual films and film­mak­ers, in­clud­ing Ri Gwan­nam, ‘‘ a very au­ter­ish, gruff man who does a lot of mil­i­tary songs and is fond of in­sult­ing his ac­tors’’, ac­cord­ing to Broinowski.

Gwan­nam was shoot­ing a his­tor­i­cal drama on the decks of a real-life US spy ship, the USS Pue­blo, which had been cap­tured by the North Kore­ans in 1968. Lack­ing cau­casian ac­tors, Gwan­nam took the op­por­tu­nity to cast Broinowski as an evil Amer­i­can (al­though she fluffed her lines). In a fur­ther twist, Broinowski also got to speak to a sol­dier in the de­mil­i­tarised zone about cin­ema the­ory and the Mad Max films.

‘‘ It was so un­usual for them to have a West­erner there not want­ing to in­ves­ti­gate the gu­lags, but ac­tu­ally gen­uinely in­ter­ested in sit­ting down with them and un­der­stand­ing how they make their films,’’ Broinowski says.

North Korea has had a thriv­ing film in­dus­try for 65 years, and it is well doc­u­mented that Kim Jong-il was a huge film buff. Be­tween 1964 and last year, he over­saw thou­sands of North Korean movies, cov­er­ing ev­ery genre from mar­tial arts to ro­man­tic come­dies. The di­rec­tors of th­ese films have al­ways been well looked af­ter by the state; some of them are even sent to Rus­sia to study cin­e­matog­ra­phy.

In­ter­est­ingly, the ‘‘ Sun of So­cial­ism’’ Kim Jong-il also had an air­con­di­tioned vault be­neath his palace with more than 20,000 Hol­ly­wood DVDs. In­deed, some of the Korean films he over­saw were ver­sions of fa­mous block­busters such as Ti­tanic, Godzilla and even Glad­i­a­tor.

‘‘ I got to see clips from sev­eral North Korean films . . . The Godzilla film, called Pul­gasari, is ac­tu­ally ex­cel­lent,’’ in­sists Broinowski. ‘‘ But, in gen­eral, their films are an ac­quired taste. It’s like step­ping back in time in their look and feel. They still use the tech­nol­ogy that we were us­ing 30 or 40 years ago.’’

North Korean film­mak­ers are still mostly shoot­ing on cel­lu­loid us­ing long shots, long takes and post-recorded sound. This proved to be a stum­bling block for Broinowski when mak­ing her pro­pa­ganda film. ‘‘ I used a Korean film crew but had to train one of them how to hold a boom,’’ she ex­plains.

The Korean crew, in­clud­ing two in­ter­preters and a fixer, were with Broinowski and Atkins the en­tire time. ‘‘ We drank to­gether, en­joyed a laugh and shared a real ca­ma­raderie as film­mak­ers,’’ she says.

In­evitably, though, there were re­stric­tions. ‘‘ You are only taken to places they want to show you, and they are pro­tec­tive of im­ages of the ‘ Dear Leader’, but we were af­forded a rel­a­tive amount of freedom be­cause they ap­pre­ci­ated what we were do­ing,’’ says Atkins.

Broinowski hopes that once her film is re­leased in cinemas, it will ‘‘ help to build a bridge be­tween North Korea and the out­side world through diplo­macy, rather than knee-jerk mil­i­tarism, which is not get­ting any­one any­where’’.

A national meet­ing cel­e­brat­ing the 71st birth an­niver­sary of for­mer leader Kim Jong-Il at Py­ongyang In­door Sta­dium, above; Anna Broinowski, left, en­joyed ca­ma­raderie with North Korean film­mak­ers

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