Kim Jong-il – North Korea’s recently departed Dear Leader – was a huge film buff. Keen enough, in fact, to order the kidnapping of Shin Sang-ok, a South Korean director, who he thought could provide a little tuition. Over eight years of captivity, Shin then directed seven films, with Kim hovering in the background as an executive producer.
Few of those flicks have made it onto screens outside Pyongyang, but North Korea’s latest cinematic venture may see bigger audiences. Meet in Pyongyang is the first Chinese-North Korean co-production in 60 years, and has been produced to target China’s moviegoers.
Meet in Pyongyang tells the story of a Chinese dancer Wang Xiaonan (played by Liu Dong), a skilled but self-centred performer who struggles to perform Arirang, a Korean folk dance. During an exchange programme to North Korea, she then observes the traditional dance, and develops a lasting friendship with a North Korean dancer (Kim Ok-lim).
Produced by China Film Stellar and North Korea’s Korean Film Studio, Meet in Pyongyang was the brainchild of Li Shuihe, a veteran producer of Chinese films.
Li’s had been invited to the Pyongyang International Film Festival in 2006 and liked it so much he turned up again over each of the next five years. “I found that not only do the North Korean people love movies, but Chinese television dramas are very popular there, too. So, apparently our two peoples enjoy the same type of entertainment, why not make a movie together?” asked Li, who is now president of China Film Stellar, a state-run studio and theatre chain partly owned by the China Film Group.
So he proposed the idea to the North Korean government in 2009 and Kim senior gave the nod.
Writing the script wasn’t straightforward. “The North Korean representatives insisted on telling stories about the history of our countries’ friendship, and all they proposed were stories set during the war of resistance against Japan, and the Korean war,” Li told South Weekend. “But from the Chinese side, we don’t want to talk only about the past; we want to make a modern film to show the world present-day North Korea, and a film with commercial value that would appeal to young people in China.”
Another proposal – this time from the Chinese – was a film about the adventures of a child from China who gets lost in North Korea. “The North Korean government disagreed,” says Li. “They said: ‘A lost child in North Korea will be returned in half an hour. We are not like China where when a child is lost they are abducted and trafficked!’”
The North Koreans were also worried about negative portrayals, so images conveying poverty and hardship were out of the question too.
“The North Korea representatives didn’t want any conflict in the plot. They were adamant that no one from either country in the story could be in the wrong. Where’s the drama in that?” Li recalled. “So finally, we agreed that the drama would come out of misunderstandings.”
Small wonder, then, that the script took two years to finish, after numerous revisions from either side.
Right before filming was scheduled to begin, Li was then told that the North Koreans were unfamiliar with digital filmmaking techniques (they were still using 35-millimetre film). So the Chinese crew ended up lugging all the equipment to North Korea.
Acting styles proved a challenge too. Li had to remind North Korean actors to relax because their performances seemed too exaggerated and unnatural. Producers often filmed secretly during rehearsals to capture more natural moments. “They don’t know that we just need to turn on the machine,” the Chinese director told the Global Times.
The majority of the shoot took place in Pyongyang, with the production and marketing budget fully funded by the Chinese studios. That left the North Korean partners to supply locations and manpower. But Li reveals that this didn’t cost the Chinese partner anything since all the North Koreans worked for free (the film was made for just Rmb15 million, or $2.3 million).
“The North Korean actors, from the leads to the extras, didn’t take any money. They said it’s an honour to contribute to their country. But of course, the Chinese actors were paid,” admits Li.
So how’s the final product? Well, the film focuses strictly on culture (in this case, Korean dance) as the common bond between the two countries. That doesn’t sound like edge-of-the-seat material but The Hollywood Reporter still seems to think that Meet in Pyongyang is worth watching. “The film has a surprisingly open vision, and viewers are left to draw their own conclusions about a national way of life alien not just to Westerners, but to many modern Chinese. Curiosity value alone makes it well worth showcasing in festivals and specialised venues,” it suggested.
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