Monday, September 20, 2010

Pyongyang Cinemas – a Peek into North Korea

Kim Il-Sung pictured above the performers at the Mass Games in Pyongyang, August 2010. The picture backdrop constantly changes throughout the performance and is formed by thousands of school children holding various coloured boards. Image Dan Edwards.
I recently took a break from the hustle and bustle of Beijing with a brief trip to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea – more commonly known as North Korea. Unfortunately I didn't see any local films – unless you count the teeth-grindingly dull propaganda videos were were shown at every museum – but we did catch glimpses of a couple of Pyongyang cinemas.

Movie-going has long been a popular pastime in North Korea, and I gather all towns have at least a few cinemas. It's hard to know to what extent these are still functioning given the reportedly severe power shortages throughout the country. Pyongyang is said to have better supplies than the rest of North Korea, although the sparse smattering of lights visible by night from our high-rise hotel made it clear that even in the capital electricity is running short. We saw several cinemas that appeared to be at least active during the day, but we didn't pass any at night so I can't report whether they were open for evening screenings. There was very little activity on the streets generally after dark.

Like all tourists, I had to visit the country with a tour group, since unsupervised travel is impossible. I traveled with the Beijing-based Koryo Tours, in a group of around 15 people that included my wife and several friends. We were driven around in our own bus and accompanied everywhere by four guides, one of whom filmed us at every stop. The guides then offered to sell us DVDs of the footage at the end of our trip (I think they're learning from China!). There were also numerous plain-clothed security guys very obviously watching us every time we got off the bus.

The only public cinema I was able to photograph was located next to Pyongyang's “Arc of Triumph.” The arch is a bigger version of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and supposedly marks the spot where Kim Il-Sung made a speech after returning to Pyongyang following the surrender of Japanese forces in 1945. Why this site has been marked with a copy of a European monument wasn't made clear.

Pyongyang's “Arc of Triumph.” Image Dan Edwards.

Opposite the arch was the cinema pictured below.

The Kaeson Cinema House, located opposite the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang. Image Dan Edwards
According to the map on this excellent site about the Pyongyang Metro, this cinema is the Kaeson Cinema House (to access the street map click on “Maps” in the site's left-hand menu and scroll down to the bottom of the page. The Arch of Triumph is point 17 and the cinema point 30, both located towards the top right-hand corner of the map).

Note the film posters out the front of the cinema featuring a standard-issue stern faced Korean general and a traditionally-dressed wholesome local girl.

In the far top right of the picture, poking out from behind a grey apartment block, is the top of the infamous Ryugyong Hotel, a huge pyramid-shaped structure started in the 1980s but never finished. Recently work has recommenced and our guides claimed it would be finished in 2012. We couldn't actually see any work taking place, but one of our guides explained that the workers only labour at night because the building is so tall they get dizzy if they work during the day!

My friend Drew Macrae got this clearer shot of the cinema featuring some passers-by. People were dressed in a greater variety of styles than we expected, although clothing generally tended to be on the drab side.

Kaeson Film House, Pyongyang. Image Drew Macrae.
According to a guide I chatted to after the Arch of Triumph stop-off, North Korea produces two or three new feature films a year, and the cinemas screen a mixture of new titles and older productions. In the past some Soviet films made it to the DPRK, but these days I think the viewing fare is exclusively Korean. Our guide said certain actors were regarded as stars and were very popular with the public. She also mentioned that these stars receive privileges like cars and a petrol ration. Judging by the almost complete lack of traffic in Pyongyang, these must be rare privileges indeed.

The other cinema I managed to photograph was the Pyongyang International Cinema House, built to host the Pyongyang International Film Festival, which takes place every two years. The 2010 edition is on right now (from September 18-24 according to Koryo staff), although bizarrely this isn’t mentioned on the festival’s website.

According to Wikipedia the festival started in 1987 as the snappily-named "Pyongyang Film Festival of the Non-aligned and Other Developing Countries." I had the impression the cinema was a more recently-built structure, but it's marked on the street map on the Pyongyang Metro site, which dates from 1990, so perhaps it has always housed the festival (the cinema is point 54 towards the bottom right of the map).

You can see the International Cinema House in the pictures below – it's the concrete, round-ish building, seen here from the Yanggakdo Hotel where we stayed. The weather was very gray for most of our stay!
Above and below: Pyongyang's International Cinema House on Yanggakdo Island, seen from the twenty-fifth floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel. Image Dan Edwards.

The Yanggakdo is a vast establishment of several hundred rooms and 50-odd stories, located on an island in the middle of the Taedong River to ensure tourists are isolated from the rest of the Pyongyang. As you can see the film house also sits on the island. The green patch in the foreground of the pictures is the hotel's golf course.

Here's another shot by Drew Macrae.
Image Drew Macrae.
I asked our guide if the International Cinema House was used when the film festival wasn't on, and she claimed it was open at all times for regular screenings. We passed the cinema each time we left the hotel, however, and there was never any sign of life around the building – no cars, buses, people, or posters were visible, and none of the doors appeared to be open.

One of the people who has played a key role in the Pyongyang festival in recent years is Beijing personality Nick Bonner, who has been in and out of the DPRK for years and now runs Koryo, the tour company we traveled with. Nick has produced several documentaries on North Korea for the BBC, the first of which was A State of Mind about two school girls participating in the Mass Games – a celebration described by Koryo as, “a synchronized socialist-realist spectacular, featuring over 100,000 participants in a 90 minute display of gymnastics, dance, acrobatics, and dramatic performance, accompanied by music and other effects, all wrapped in a highly politicized package.”

We got to see the 2010 edition of the Games on our second night in Pyongyang. In addition to the photo at the top of this post, here are a couple of snaps from the performance (all images Dan Edwards).

Nick Bonner is currently directing a feature-length romantic comedy for the North Koreans. According to the Koryo staff on our tour, the filming has been completed and they're heading into post-production, which I think will be done in Beijing.

You can read an interview with Nick from earlier this year here, and read about his other North Korean documentaries here. I highly recommended all three of Nick’s films. Actually, it was a viewing of A State of Mind about five years ago at the Sydney Film Festival that first planted the idea in my mind that I'd like to visit North Korea. My friend Drew was also at that screening, so it was great that we managed to make it to Pyongyang together. I've always been interested in North Korea, and the trip has turned me into a keen DPRK watcher.

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