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Last Updated: Monday, 18 August, 2003, 10:49 GMT 11:49 UK
N Korean movies' propaganda role
Kim Jong Il
Kim Jong-il is well known for his love of films
The message of much of North Korean cinema is that the country's people live in the best country in the world; South Korea is poor and backward; and America is the axis of evil.

The film industry is the propaganda machine of choice for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Mr Kim is well-known as a passionate film fanatic - famously, he liked one director, South Korean Shin Sang-ok, so much that he kidnapped him.

"As soon as the car door shut, someone suddenly put a sack over my head, and I couldn't see anything or even breathe properly," Mr Shin told BBC World Service's The World Today programme.

"Then they sprayed something inside the sack, and I started to lose consciousness.

"A short while later I was being loaded onto a big ship, having been wrapped in some kind of plastic sheeting.

"Kim Jong-il later confessed to me that the reason was that he wanted me to come and make films for him," he said.

Proto-Communist Godzilla

Mr Shin eventually escaped, but not before making a film that is now a cult classic in North Korea - Pulgasari.

Godzilla, Press Association
Kim wanted a Godzilla of his own
Pulgasari is about a huge iron-eating lizard, who fights with the peasants against the feudal overlords - a sort of proto-communist Godzilla.

It is typical of the way North Korean films - little-seen outside the country - are scripted and shot with one purpose - Kim's propaganda.

According to Korean film expert Johannes Schonherr, even the country's capital Pyongyang has been developed with films in mind.

"It looks like a movie set," Mr Schonherr said.

"It's not a capital built for living, it's a capital which is built to show off - something that you can film and transmit to the rest of the country via movies and television."

North Korean films show only a positive image of the country under Mr Kim - according to 1999's Forever In Our Memory, there is no famine in the country, just a little drought and bad harvest.

And more often than not, to the rescue comes North Korea's number one film star - the army.

"The message is that they themselves will solve it," Mr Schonherr said.

North Korean soldiers
The army are the stars of North Korean pictures
"The film doesn't talk about food coming in from the outside, from NGOs or the UN, it talks about solving the problems themselves by working harder.

"It's the army that solves the problems because in North Korea it's the army that's the most important institution. It's the army that helps the farmers to eat again," he said.

In one film, the army carry buckets of water for miles and finally hold back a flood by joining arms, standing firm as a human dam - and praising the great leader.

All North Korean films are made according to the book On The Art Of Cinema, written by Mr Kim in 1973. The North Korean leader also likes to drop in on studios and make suggestions.

Titanic remake

Rumours abound about Mr Kim's favourites movies. Mr Schonherr said he believed they included the Friday 13th slasher films and gangster pictures like Scarface and The Godfather.

The Godfather
The Godfather is believed to be among Kim's favourite films
"Of course he doesn't travel much outside North Korea, so he doesn't know that much about the outside world from seeing it himself," Mr Schonherr added.

"But he is getting a world view from watching all these movies from all over the place.

"He likes American movies and he likes Hong Kong movies - probably he thinks in America they shoot each other all day long and have car chases every day."

What is certainly true is that a number of Mr Kim's films mimic Western-made ones quite closely.

According to Mr Schonherr, while Pulgasari was a copy of Japan's Godzilla films, another recent epic - about a North Korean ship that sank in 1945 - was "totally modelled" on Titanic, the most successful film of all time.

"The love story is like the love story with Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet, and the director had to watch the real Titanic movie more than 100 times so he could get the Titanic feel into the North Korean version," Mr Schonherr said.

Kidnapped by North Korea
05 Mar 03  |  Asia-Pacific


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