Singaporean filmmakers offer a glimpse into privileged lives of Pyongyang's young elite
When Singaporean filmmakers Lynn Lee and James Leong started their documentary “The Great North Korean Picture Show” in 2008, they thought the film would most likely be about the communist state’s film industry.
The film, which had its Korean premiere at the recent DMZ Korean International Documentary Film Festival, turned out to be something more, if not entirely something else.
A lot of it had to do with the limitations the filmmakers faced while shooting: They were only able to film what the authorities let them. Three minders – in director Lee’s words, “the three Mr Kims” – always followed them along, making sure they were not “breaking the rules”. And at the end of each day, Lee and Leong had to submit their footage for censoring by the higher authorities. The pair visited North Korea on four separate occasions between 2008 and 2010 to shoot the 94–minute documentary.
The result is an intimate expose of the highly privileged lives of Pyongyang’s young elite, who wear fake eyelashes and eye shadow, are pleasant and well mannered and hopelessly and genuinely proud of their state. They also hum Tchaikovsky, live in Pyongyang’s modern apartment complexes and worry about gaining weight while attending the country’s most prestigious film and theatre school. Lee and Leong, who were the first foreigners to film inside Pyongyang’s University of Cinematic and Dramatic Arts, offer a touching and often bizarre portrait of youths living in the world’s most isolated country.
The film follows two students. Eun-beom, whose parents are both famous actors in North Korea, looks like a South Korean teenager waiting in line for a concert when he talks about his dreams and aspirations – to become a great actor and ultimately please then-leader Kim Jong-il.
In the movie, he participates in a student film that praises North Korea’s health care system, which he calls “the best system in the world”. The passionate young man is well behaved and kind, and tries his best to answer the filmmakers’ questions in detail. What’s ironic is that his poise is the result of his gratitude to the world’s most infamous dictator.
The other student the viewers get to learn about is Yun-mi, Eun-beom’s classmate. The pale-skinned, soft-spoken young woman is the daughter of a high-ranking official. Her father works in the field of science, which is, in his own words, “the field our great leader values the most”.
Her family lives in modern apartments, not very different from a middle-class South Korean family, with a piano and a separate kitchen.
One of her worries is weight gain. She is jealous of her classmate who dances better. Before her dad gets home, she thinks of what to play for him on the piano once he arrives. She sings a mellow propaganda song while playing the piano, but when the filmmakers ask her what the lyrics are about, she finds it hard to answer. She can’t tell what is and is not propaganda.
“The way we see it is that a lot of the students at this school are very, very, very privileged, and they come from very well–placed families,” said director Lee during a special talk session held as part of DMZ Docs in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province.
“And the thing is that in North Korea, films are the same as propaganda. They will tell you that their films are made for the purposes of propaganda. So for someone like Yun-mi who has known nothing but privilege all her life,, who lives in a very comfortable apartment, who has everything that she can desire, having the job of making propaganda praising the state – she has no problem doing that because she really believes in it. It is her life.”
It was Yun-mi’s teacher who recommended her to be one of the main characters for Lee and Leong’s film, because her high–ranking parents were in fact against the idea of her becoming an actress before she took the school’s entrance exam. She went against her parents’ wishes to pursue her dream – to be a great actress and make her great leader happy – and her teacher was very proud of Yun-mi for that, said Lee. The way she treats her parents is in fact very casual; she openly whines about how her mother won’t let her drink coffee, and greets her father almost childishly when he gets home.
“The question is how much freedom there is for people within the system,” said director Leong. “Because if there was no freedom, if everyone in the system thought it was a bad system, the system wouldn’t survive.
In the movie, Yun-mi and Eum-beom seem particularly close. It’s unclear if they are dating, but the romantic tension is clearly there. They share a lot of giggles and silly jokes, read Kim Jong-il’s words out loud together, and stroll the winter campus covered in snow. Acting classes are also a lot of fun. They know when to be serious and when to make fun of themselves.
One of the most memorable scenes takes place at a large skating rink. Eun-beom stands right beside Yun-mi, humming Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, while the photographs of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, placed on the rink’s ceiling, loom large behind them. There is something that’s both romantic and bizarre about the scene, which makes the movie unforgettable.
The film, regardless of the censorship and other limitations, captures some of the most beautiful and vulnerable qualities of youth: an innocence yet to be lost, a romantic worldview, and the kind of idealism that only ignorance – or innocence – and safe upbringing can maintain.