'The Interview' plunged US into cultural arms race between North Korea and Seoul
North and South Korea have been engaged in a cinematic arms race for decades
In recent years, North Korea has become the antagonist of choice in Hollywood action movies such as Olympus Has Fallen and the remake of Red Dawn. That trend is mostly a matter of convenience: studios don't want to antagonise any more plausible military powers that also happen to be emerging movie markets, including China and Russia.
But using North Korea as a workaround became less convenient in December when The Interview, the very silly movie from James Franco and Seth Rogen about a pair of lackadaisical journalists who land an interview with Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) and are asked by the CIA to assassinate him, prompted sabre-rattling from the North Korean regime and threats of violence against theatres that had the temerity to show the movie.
While North Korea's reaction to the US might have been unnerving for Americans, who are still adjusting to the impact of international audiences on their movies and television, the incident shouldn't have come as a surprise. With The Interview, the US blundered into a regional cultural arms race that's been going on for decades.
In The Interview, the two journalists are invited because Kim Jong-un happens to love both The Big Bang Theory and the pair's mediocre, celebrity-worshipping excuse for a nightly news broadcast. That's no flight of fancy: previous leader Kim Jong-il's first major position in his father's regime, which he took in 1971, was overseeing the Bureau of Propaganda and Agitation, including North Korea's movie operations, journalist Barbara Demick explained in her remarkable book Nothing to Envy, about the ordinary lives of North Koreans. He even wrote a 1973 book of film theory. But for all his pretensions and his large library of movies pirated by North Korean diplomatic staff, Kim Jong-il's tastes could be pedestrian: he reportedly loved Elizabeth Taylor, Sean Connery, James Bond movies, Friday the 13th and First Blood.
Paul Fischer's book A Kim Jong-il Production - which, in a case of truly fortuitous timing, arrives in stores this month - is a highly illuminating look at the middle Kim's cinematic obsessions and the cinematic arms race between the two Koreas. Some of that competition was driven by the recognition that movies could be powerful political tools. North and South Korean children saw propaganda films about the evils of the government and people on the other side of the border. And in North Korea, a total information blackout helped keep people from developing aspirations that might have encouraged them to challenge the government.
But international prestige was at stake, too. After the second world war and the end of Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula, one area in which the newly-partitioned countries competed was film. The South won the race to produce the first theatrical feature in 1946, but North Korea was in the hunt, thanks to high standards laid down by the government and Soviet financial subsidies to North Korean movies and technical advice to aspiring filmmakers.
The drama Sea of Blood, which Fischer identifies as a turning point in Kim Jong-il's movie-making, established the standard elements of a North Korean movie: "A popular theme song, a strong female lead (in this case, the family's mother, who joins the communist resistance and starts smuggling explosives for them), stock foreign villains, an undercurrent of racial nationalism, and a curious mix of violence and schmaltz." More restrictions would follow, and as North Korean filmmakers recycled the same sets, tropes and emotional beats, the country's cinematic culture started to fall behind.
At the same time, South Korea was making its own investments in movies, thanks significantly to the efforts of the country's long-serving minister of culture, Kim Dong-ho. "In 1972, he started a five-year plan to promote culture and the arts, and founded Korea's national endowment for the arts," explains Euny Hong, author of The Birth of Korean Cool, a memoir and cultural history released last year. "Part of his plan included taking 10 per cent of movie box office sales, and putting the money towards an art promotion fund. He also built a film studio - Korea had none at the time - in the Korean countryside."
Fourteen years later, he would found the Busan International Film Festival, which helped expose foreign audiences to South Korean movies. South Korea's investments in culture would grow to include K-pop subsidies, cultural investment funds and regulations on television stations and karaoke parlours. According to Hong, the country has put US$1 billion into its pop cultural investment fund.
As the balance of cultural influence shifted, Kim Jong-il implemented a plan to revitalise North Korean cinema that makes the present regime's threats over The Interview seem less ridiculous and more plausible. As Fischer explains, in 1978, Kim ordered the kidnapping of a South Korean actress, Choi Eun-hee, and her director husband, Shin Sang-ok. And after keeping Choi in relative comfort and incarcerating Shin in a series of prisons, Kim put them both to work revitalising North Korean cinema.
This proved to be a very short-term strategy. Shin and Choi collaborated on a number of North Korean projects, but ultimately, they managed to escape, leaving Kim without a captive auteur, or a long-term plan to develop North Korean culture. Now, Fischer explains: "Today's North Korean filmmakers are encouraged to 'make more cartoons!' Animation is cheaper, more controllable, and a good way to make use of all the highly trained graduates of the Pyongyang Institute of Art."
In the fight for both international prestige and peninsular influence, South Korea seems to be winning. The New York Times recently reported on just how powerful a temptation South Korean soap operas can be to North Koreans, but this is hardly a new phenomenon. Foreign pop culture has been reaching North Korea accidentally or by design for years. Pirated DVDs have long been available on the black market in cities like Chongjin, and the North Korean government has long been trying to deter people from buying or owning them by making such acts a "betrayal of the fatherland".
The Kims had good reason to fear depictions of the outside world. "A North Korean maritime official was on a boat on the Yellow Sea in the mid-1990s when the radio accidentally picked up a South Korean broadcast," Demick writes in Nothing to Envy. "The programme was a situation comedy that featured two young women fighting over a parking space at an apartment complex. He couldn't grasp the concept of a place with so many cars that there was no room to park them."
And paradoxically, it may have been Kim Jong-il's attempts to create a more sophisticated North Korean cinematic culture that helped stoke North Korean hunger for higher quality, which often meant imported, stories.
Fischer writes that a defector told him that before: "We just watched our films and documentaries and accepted them the way they were. We thought that's how movies are. But after the Shin Sang-ok era, we had new eyes."
The Washington Post