THE GREAT NORTH KOREAN PICTURE SHOW
Directed by Lynn Lee, James Leong
Official Selection, 2013 Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival
Official Selection, 2013 Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival
It’s one of the freakiest facts of recent history that the late despot Kim Jong-il was also a hardcore movie buff, running North Korea’s national film industry like a classic Hollywood mogul. He’d approve scripts line-by-line, oversee shooting, and according to legend, could spot edits down to the very frame.
With THE GREAT NORTH KOREAN PICTURE SHOW, directors Lynn Lee and James Leong take us deep into the alternate reality that was film production under the Supreme Leader. We watch rehearsals where eager young actors giggle their way through propagandistic scripts and patriotic dance routines, and tag along with Kim Jong-il’s favorite director as he bullies his cast of extras (all real People’s Army soldiers) into overacting their hearts out.
The documentary often feels like Waiting For Guffman, but with a serious political edge. In order to gain access to the nation’s film schools and sets, the directors had to agree to total censorship approval of their footage. And yet, small, seemingly unassuming details speak volumes: the self-effacing hero worship of the acting students, the petty dictatorial management style of their teachers, the mix of spartan austerity and gee-whiz hopefulness that is evident everywhere. Even in scenes where Kim Jong-il is not mentioned, his totalitarian presence is felt. The result is a portrait of North Korean film culture that is absorbing, hilarious, and subtly frightening. –Lev Kalman