North Korea, the most evil dictatorship in the world - a film list

Last week marked 60 years since the Korean war (1950-1953) broke out. As Al Jazeera aptly points out, it has largely been forgotten in the West despite the huge destruction and death toll it caused. Around 4mln people died in the three years in which the fighting ensued, around half of them civilians. Apparently, the USA dropped more napalm bombs in those 3 years in Korea than in the 20 years they fought in Vietnam. It was also the first time the UN got involved in a military conflict.
This list is sort of my way to mark the occasion. North Korea remains a huge threat to the world. Throughout the years, it has continued to conduct nuclear weapon tests in the open and is host to about 15 concentration camps.

Films about North Korea are very hard to come by. The challenge for documentary filmmakers is huge - getting into North Korea is one thing, but getting out safely with uncensored film material is another. Perhaps ironically, feature films about North Korea are even scarcer.

Defilada (Poland, 1989)
directed by: Andrzej Fidyk
clip: A Scene From The Film (English Subtitles)
The Whole Film (Polish)

Any list of films about North Korea would be incomplete without this one. It was one of the first documentary films ever made about North Korea by a foreign director.
Andrzej Fidyk got into North Korea easily because Poland was itself a communist regime at the time. He got out easily too as he shot no forbidden material and hid nothing from the censors. In fact, he didn’t even use a narrator in the film. There is a Polish voice-over, but it’s only purpose is to translate what the North Koreans he filmed were saying.
The film is just shot after shot of North Koreans praising their country and their leader. What the censors didn’t get was the irony and sarcasm with which Fidyk put it all together. It watches like a Monty Python film. You sort of feel bad for laughing, but it really is hilarious. And in actuality, it tells you more about the regime than you could find out in any other way.

Yodok Stories (Norway/Poland, 2008)
directed by: Andrzej Fidyk
clip: The Teaser
The Trailer
The Stage Musical Trailer

Almost twenty years later Fidyk gets approached by a Norwegian human rights organization. Would he like to tackle the topic of North Korea again? Poland is now a democratic country and part of the EU. North Korea hates Fidyk’s ass for getting away with his previous film and he is basically a persona non grata. And the subject matter is even more difficult - the documentary is to be about North Korea’s concentration camps, a topic very rarely even written about, let alone put on film.
Fidyk wonders how this can be accomplished. The point is not just to make it, but to get it seen and the subject feels much too heavy to be appealing to a broader audience. Finally, he finds the solution in the title of his previous film - “defilada” means “parade”. North Korea stages the most spectacular and amazing parades in the world. So Fidyk sets out to find a director of such spectacles amongst the many North Korean refugees in South Korea. Upon finding such a man, he talks him into making a stage musical (a very popular art form in South Korea) about North Korean concentration camps and involve North Korean concentration camp survivors in the production. And now Fidyk’s stage is set - the documentary will simply detail the process of making the musical.
The result of this was a very beautiful documentary that was shown at many major documentary film festivals and a stage musical that toured not only South Korea, but the USA also.

The Red Chapel (Denmark, 2009)
directed by: Mads Brügger
clip: The Trailer

Simon and Jacob, two Danish-Korean comedians, travel to North Korea with their manager on a cultural exchange. It’s an attempt to laugh at the regime in front of their very noses (and they actually pull it off - as Defilada proved, North Koreans seem to have no sense of irony and sarcasm).
But the real reason that makes this film special is Jacob and his handicap - he’s spastic and this has very far-reaching consequences for the film.
Firstly, the censors don’t understand what he’s saying. Their translators can translate the gist of normal Danish into Korean, but not spastic Danish (even Danes have problems understanding Jacob until they get used to his manner of speaking). This means that Jacob is totally free to express his mind at all times. As he’s naturally very honest and out-spoken it makes for some very interesting scenes!
Secondly, if Jacob had been born in North Korea, he would have probably been killed at birth. Handicapped people are very unusual in North Korea and it’s very interesting to see how North Koreans treat him. The relationship between him and Mrs Pak, their minder, is particularly weird. Jacob seems exasperated by her motherly attentions at first (she takes an instant and honest liking to him), but they do develop a sort of bond.
Jacob is very much the heart of the film. Some of the most poignant comments about the regime are made by him.

Special Mentions:
I’ve watched quite a few films about North Korea over the years, but the three I’ve listed are the only ones I would whole-heartedly recommend. There is, however, one more film I’d like to make mention of…

  • The Schoolgirl’s Diary (North Korea, 2006)
    This was one of the biggest box office hits ever in North Korea, apparently. It’s also one of very few North Korean films that made it out of the country (it didn’t get very far, mind you - just far enough that if you’re really interested in seeing a film from North Korea, you might be able to find it somewhere with huge difficulty).
    If you’ve ever seen any Soviet propaganda films then you’ll have a good idea of what the film is like (North Korea is one of very few countries that still uses socialist realism principles in art). But while Soviet cinema had some fantastic filmmakers and film schools, North Korea does not appear to. Cinematically the film is pretty boring.
    The story is that of a girl, who is angry with her father. He’s a scientist and he works so hard that he neglects the family. Yet for all his work, he has no results to show - they live in greater poverty than most families, his work receives no praise and he’s never at home with them. They don’t see him for weeks, sometimes even months. Of course in the end he succeeds, the girl realizes she was wrong and the moral of the story is that hard work pays off.
    I mention this film for one reason only - it’s a very rare opportunity to see a North Korean feature film. Otherwise, it is not worth viewing IMO.
    Edited to Add: See the trailer here.

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