North Korea’s film industry has trouble staying afloat

A still from A Day and a Night, released this year. (Image | KCTV)

The once thriving movie industry in North Korea seems to be stagnating. When a new war blockbuster, 72 Hours, was screened this month in theaters throughout the country, it was only the second movie to come out this year. 

It followed A Day and a Night, which was aired on Korean Central Television on April 15, coinciding with founding leader Kim Il-sung’s birthday. 

This is a far cry from the vibrant cinema scene in the past when Kim’s Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, took charge out of his own personal fascination and understanding of the propaganda value of movies.

To get a sense of the apparent slowdown, despite the large numbers still employed in the industry, we need to look at the involvement of the political leadership in the arts sector.

In 2013, Kim Jong-un personally instructed the arts sector to produce 100 films a year. This goal proved too ambitious, but the country’s three studios did at least manage to release one or two films a month in the last several years.

More were produced but a number were deemed unsuitable. The censor deciding the fate of each movie is Kim Jong-un himself. Every movie has to be approved by him before it can be released. 

According to insiders, the main reason for rejecting a film is poor quality. Productions are expected to meet international standards, but the studios are unable to achieve this because they lack both the budgets and the necessary experience. 

Films that aren’t approved for release are kept in storage. The main Korean Film Studio, the April 25 Film Studio, which focuses on war movies, and the April 26 Children’s Animation Film Studio, have facilities to preserve them.

Another twist in this system is that movies approved for release can later be recalled. This happens when issues arise with the actors. Once a movie is recalled for this reason it can never be broadcast again.

Veterans in the industry reckon well over 100 movies have been canceled in this way. 

One notable example involved the actress Woo In-hee who was a star in the 1960s and ‘70s. She reportedly had an affair with Kim Jong-il, among others. Whatever the actual truth, she was executed for “impurity.” Culture and arts sector workers had to attend the execution. Her film director husband, Yoo Ho-son, and their children were placed in the front row and forced to watch. They were then sent away for two years of reform through labor. 

All the films in which she appeared were recalled and stored. Some were re-shot with different actresses.

Another case was that of actor Choi Woong-chul. He had the misfortune of being indirectly related to Kim Jong-un. His wife and Kim had a common uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was a top leader. When Jang was executed in 2013 for treason, all of Choi’s movies were recalled and some, such as “The General Secretary of Taehongdan,” were re-shot with other actors.

Another factor in the current woes of the industry is financial. Directors get paid around the equivalent of two or three dollars a month. This is not enough to live on and so they supplement the income with bribes from actors for roles. 

To be a star, you have to either have a strong political background and connections or spend money. Once selected, it’s considered a basic moral duty for a lead actor to take care of the director, the production team, and support staff while the movie is being made.

They also may have to bear other costs. For instance, certain outfits like military uniforms are provided by the studios, but everyday undergarments, casual wear, and other clothes have to be covered privately. Hence, it’s a common assumption that any new star must be rich.

The other source of financing is the party committees in the locations where the movies are shot. Filmmaking falls under the jurisdiction of the Party Central Committee’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, which requires local units to cover food, accommodation and other necessities. For example, if a film is being made about the Kimchaek Iron and Steel Complex, the party committee there guarantees everything needed for the entire filming period. 

With the regions struggling financially, they can’t meet these costs and so the movies can’t be made.

Besides the wealthy stars, most actors and production staff have their own personal difficulties and struggle to survive. 

Many engage in side jobs to make ends meet. Actors, for example, may go to people’s homes on ceremonial occasions and perform. They are also invited by wealthy people to liven up the atmosphere of social gatherings. They can earn up to $200 or $300 for this. However, since this is illegal, if caught, they must undergo “revolutionization” (reform through labor). They might get sent to mines or rural areas for a year or more, but consider the risk worthwhile.

Zane Han

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