Fun With Monoliths
In a different world, would North Korean leader Kim Jong-il have been happy as a movie director—or even as a film critic? Of the 42 talks and speeches delivered by a youthful Kim from 1964–1971 and collected in the first volume of his Accomplishing Juche Revolutionary Cause (1990), more than 30 of them concern filmmaking—from its methods, financial management, and political content down to the misuse of anachronistic hand props. (Juche, two syllables, is North Korea's house philosophy of nationalist self-reliance.) Though reading the book straight through is a challenge for even the most interested North Korea watcher (the predictably numbing titles include “On Improving Party Guidance to the Film Industry,” “Film Artists Are Standard-Bearers on the Ideological Front of Our Party,” and “On Some Problems in Improving Work in the Sector of Film Art”), it’s a fascinating text, mixing boilerplate party-line mantras with glimpses of a cinema most of the world will never see. It also increases one’s appreciation for Jim Finn’s funny and weirdly endearing The Juche Idea, a sui generis genre-straddler that screens at the Museum of Modern Art on February 1. The homemade charm of his film lures the viewer into a meticulously collaged alternate reality, in which the most hermetic country in the world slyly sheds its reputation for repression and sparks the wildest creativity.
Some of Kim’s comments seem reasonable enough. On June 6, 1970, a 28-year-old Kim delivered a talk to the senior officials of the Korean Film Studio. “Because they are not widely informed,” he said, “members of the assessment group always say the same thing at meetings to present creative intentions. If what they say is accepted, all films will be the same as one another.”
Variety only goes so far, however. Though in many places Kim might come across as a stereotypical brass-tacks Hollywood producer, offering blunt critiques (“The chorus in the torchlit scene in the film My Wife’s Workplace is rather pompous”) and urging filmmakers to adhere to a “speed campaign,” he also demands that they hew to “the Party’s monolithic ideological system”—a phrase repeatedly and approvingly invoked.
But slackers beware: don’t try pawning off what amounts to a plagiarized scenario. In “Let Us Create More Revolutionary Films Based on Socialist Life,” a whopping 28-page talk, Kim sounds like a contemporary U.S. critic dissing Avatar as a Dances With Wolves ripoff: “As I pointed out some time ago, the new script in which you made the hero a shoemaker has a similar story to that of the feature film The Girl Barber, and there is also nothing particularly new in what the writer wants to say….As a matter of fact, this work differs little from The Girl Barber in theme, plot and mood. The only difference is that the barber, the heroine in The Girl Barber, has been replaced by a shoemaker as the hero.”
Even good works can use a hit of Kimjongilian insight. Kim adjudged 1969’s Sea of Blood (based on the “classic drama” written by his father, the country’s “Great Leader,” Kim Il Sung), to be “well produced” overall, so that “only details need improving.” The picture is made up of “18 or 19 reels,” which Kim deems too long; he has different ideas for the ending; “the face of the mother when she is lying down was screened too large in the scene when Gap Sun gives her the sorghum cake she has kept hidden”; the acting needs tweaking; “the dialogue should be rearranged and recorded again as far as reel 6.” (According to the hagiographic Great Leader Kim Jong Il , quoted in Bradley K. Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader , the Sea of Blood screenplay itself was brazenly rewritten by Kim, in a wee-hours spurt.)
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. Seriousness is tinged with an echo of mad laughter; a more anarchic narrative lurks somewhere between the lines.
Finn’s The Juche Idea takes the concept of massive revision to its absurd limit. Yoon (Jung Yoon Lee), a South Korean by way of Japan, has landed an artist’s residency in North Korea, where she applies herself to insect-based bio-art, farmwork, and propagandistic poem-driven montages. But she can't seem to hit the right tone. “Your video ‘Dentures of Imperialism’ seems underdeveloped,” says a critical Russian interlocutor (whose remarks are hilariously, laboriously translated into Korean for the perfectly deadpan Yoon). “I'm not sure if the footage matched what you were saying. It doesn't quite make sense, and I'm not sure what the point is.”
Soon we see Yoon’s attempt at correction. The title reads “The Small Little Teeth of America/The Tiny Dentures of Imperialism”; after a few weathered aerial shots of Pyongyang, we see Yoon, inset, in traditional garb, monotonously reciting a hyperbolic “Juche poem,” which begins, “Foreign usurpers have made beasts of our brethren....Like blind monkeys in a pond, the U.S. and its South Korean manservant spit from their teeth and laugh at the struggles of the workers’ state” and only gets more extravagant from there (“O bureaucratic capitalism? Wet slug to be suffocated in eggshells and beer.”)
Would this version pass muster? Is it good or bad now? (What did the initial criticism even mean?) For us, mockery of the idea of a North Korean cinema is instinctive, despite the fact that little of it has been seen. (The most seen film is probably the monster-as-metaphor feature Pulgasari, largely directed by the kidnapped South Korean director Shin Sang-ok.) But our derision masks a kind of aesthetic horror: that the moviegoing habits of an entire nation, hermetically sealed, are completely different from ours. We laugh at the communist kitsch, the overblown rhetoric, but we have no way of assessing Yoon’s work within a context so alien to us.
In Accomplishing Juche Revolutionary Cause and other books, we find a phantom filmography: A Red Agitator, When We Pick Apples, A Woman Tractor Driver, Five Guerrilla Brothers, Fate of a Self-Defense Corps Man, Grim Days, Devotion, The Beautiful Land of Three Thousand Ri, The Road I Found, The Village We Are Living In, A Story About a Branch Leader of Partisans, People That I Met in the North…
The Juche Idea includes tantalizing excerpts from two North Korean films, Urban Girl Goes to Get Married and Girls From My Hometown, which Finn bought on eBay from a North Korean bookstore site. They appear without titles (following typically forceful Kim Jong-il epigraphs), so that a Western viewer might be forgiven for initially thinking they are culled from the same movie. Is the sad woman, who revivifies in an accordion-playing frenzy, the same one who later helps a man (in what constitutes a meet-cute) gather duck dung for the furnace? “This manure we're collecting is just the beginning,” he says, “but it will contribute to agricultural development.” To which she replies, "You mean mechanization and chemicalization?"
The fact that the films were subtitled into English, according to Finn, suggest that they were popular at home. But in what scenario would it have an anglophone audience? Perhaps only in one this far-fetched: a furiously talented American director comes across the flicks on eBay, assimilates them into his preposterously imaginative, novella-length whatsit, and presents the result at one of the most important screens in New York.
The Juche Idea has great fun with Kim Jong-il’s pronouncements without simply making fun of them. (Indeed, there’s something about Juche—taken purely as a synonym for self-reliance—that suggests a viable philosophy for Finn’s doggedly personal style of filmmaking.) Finn’s romp is often laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s so comprehensive in its attention to the particulars of the regime's cinema of control that one wonders if the North Korean leader himself might approve.
RELATED CALENDAR ENTRYMay 27–June 2, 2010 Utopian Comedies: The Films of Jim Finn
Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days and a founding co-editor of The Believer. His nonfiction appears this year in Burn This Book (HarperStudio), Read Hard! (McSweeney’s), and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Exilée and Temps Morts: Selected Works (University of California).More articles by Ed Park