Kim Jong-il’s Guide to Cinema

What do the 3 Ninjas franchise and Kim Jong-il have in common? Let’s just say your childhood nostalgia is only possible through a harrowing trip to a re-education camp. North Korean strongman, and supposed deity, Kim was groomed from an early age to inherit his father’s (Kim Il-sung) position as the supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Never mind the “democratic republic” part. Either that title was propaganda or something was lost in translation.

And propaganda would, fittingly, play a crucial part in Kim’s life. Kim was not just any ordinary nepo baby, but one entrusted to maintain the facade of North Korea, pretending the country to be a workers’ paradise while torturing and locking up dissenters. Like many a socialist utopia before him, Kim too sleep walked into a catastrophic famine that was desperately covered up with fake news. Not too hard to see why he and his son preferred to lose themselves in movies and collecting NBA memorabilia when you look at the chaos they are responsible for. His portrayal in Team America World Police was rather generous.


Cinephile dictators are nothing new: according to legend, Hitler loved King Kong, Saddam Hussein’s favorite film was The Godfather. And it’s only natural. Since the time of the Russian Revolution and The Battleship Potemkin, dictators have been taking cues from movies not just to spread lies but how to script and present narratives in reality.

Talent Scouts Are Key

pulsagari north korea 1985
Korean Film  
Shin Film Productions

The centerpiece of North Korean political thought was and is “Juche,” roughly translating to patriotic self-reliance. When rubber hit the road, Juche proved worthless when it came to art, just as it is worthless for just about everything else. Rather than depend on homegrown actors and filmmakers to build the North Korean film industry, Kim opted for a more simple tactic: kidnapping. In the late-70s, he started abducting South Koreans, starting with director Shin Sang-ok.

The director was smuggled against his will into the glorious fatherland, told he would make propaganda, understandably irked by the new direction in his film career. Resisting the mandate, he ate bark until 1983 in a prison camp before Kim finally let him do his own thing, and rewarded him with a Mercedes. A small price for the masterpiece that was 1985’s Pulgasari, a blatant copy of Godzilla. He eventually escaped to Hollywood. Free from the constraints of imminent death, politics, and starvation, Shin reinvented himself, producing the martial art series 3 Ninjas. After all Shin had been through, making kung-ku movie sequels in Southern California had to feel like he was making arthouse movies.

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To bolster the ranks of his burgeoning film community, Kim also masterminded the kidnapping of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee from Hong Kong, the wife of Shin. For the better part of a decade, Choi was compelled to star in film after film, though her view on her captor was conflicted. She once told an interviewer that the Dear Leader “respected us as artists and fully supported us.” Choi even won an international award for the 1985 film Salt. Nonetheless, she yearned for her old life, escaping to the safety of the US embassy in 1986 during the Berlin Film Festival. At the end of the day, living a marginally privileged life in a despotic, failed state was still living in a despotic state.

In all the decades, this international act of terrorism is probably the most interesting thing about North Korean cinema. And weirder still, Kim was painfully aware how flat and one-dimensional the “Juche realism” genre was.

The Supreme (and Only) Critic

Mario Micklisch Wikicommons

And this is where the story becomes a little surreal. Directors have a reputation for being petulant, cruel control freaks who can’t take criticism. Kim had all the makings of a filmmaker himself, but was doomed to have to live up to the family name. Don’t take it from us, read his treatise on the medium, On the Art of Cinema.

Living out the ultimate film-geek fantasy, he basically started his own version of Cahiers du Cinéma, his film criticism book naturally being the only legally correct one. In the 1973 guide, Kim analyzes trends and the foundation of film-making. Lest you think it is all dry bloviating about the Juche national philosophy or praising the masses, Kim does let the veil slip and expose his views on art. On a chapter on what constitutes a masterpiece, Kim gives a surprisingly nuanced view on history among his boring bromides, advising, “If a writer were to rewrite [the past] in modem terms, distorting it in order to cater to modem ideas, feelings and tastes, he would distort the historical truth.” Sage advice for modern writers, as odd as it might sound. That said, we must have missed the chapter on monster movies.

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Scores were of utmost importance, Kim notes, taking inspiration from Busby Berkely. Step one in creating great art? Great music. “If a film has no music and songs,” Kim details in his chapter on music, “the life presented in it will become too sterile and stiff for people to appreciate, and they will not enjoy the film.” And if there is one thing that is noticeable in North Korean spectacles, it is musical theater and dance numbers, though their choreography needs some jazzing up. Step two is having a stadium full of a captive audience to applaud in unison on command. North Korean cinema still lags far behind its southern cousins. Wonder why.

A Misunderstood Artist?

Kim Jong-il
Korean Central News Agency
Korea News Service

A recurring theme in much of the accounts of Kim Jong-il’s life is his deep passion for the arts and yearning to be taken seriously. Choi probably would have escaped sooner, but she seemed to legitimately appreciate Kim’s drive to make impactful films. In a revealing inner glimpse into his mind, Choi told NPR shortly before her death, “Having seen very many movies, he [Kim] wanted North Korean cinema to be just as great. But he thought his comrades were too simple.”

In page 12 of his book, Kim criticizes a patriotic film which portrays its triumphant hero as dull, the audience deprived of grasping his inner feelings and thoughts. Even Kim, the circus master of the propaganda machine, was irritated by lame writing. “If a literary work is to represent living people,” Kim wrote, “it must portray people’s thoughts and feelings truthfully, as expressed in their lives.” Though why people would lie about their inner feelings in a repressive dictatorship apparently never occurred to him. If anyone else stated, “Books are a storehouse of knowledge which provides indispensable mental nourishment for artists,” you’d nod, but when a guy who censored all outside information uttered it, it makes you suspect he had the whole thing ghost-written. And it makes one wonder if he was serious or just using his film scholarship as a front to appear intellectually deeper than he really was.

Though most of his philosophy is filtered through his socialist political baggage, that actually puts him in good company with fellow Marxist autuers like Bernardo Bertolucci and avowed-Maoist Jean-Luc Godard. In a hypothetical 1973 round table, he wouldn’t stand out. In a different country, Kim might have made movies himself, maybe even good ones, instead of Shanghaiing others to make Godzilla rip-offs for him. Luckily the film world had the last laugh, mocking the dictator in marionette form and an impromptu appearance at the Oscars where Sascha Baron Cohen pretended to spill the late ruler/god/film snob’s ashes on Ryan Seacrest. Kim made an indelible impact on the movies, just not the way he wanted.

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