Hot Docs Review: The Great North Korean Picture Show [James Leong and Lynn Lee, 2013]

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Baltimore – The aptly titled GNPS is a collection of montages from 2009 when, after months of email exchanges and gentle persuasion, Leong and Lee finally got the permission to shoot inside the Hermit Kingdom, albeit with handlers trailing their every step. From start to finish, this seemingly plain analysis showcases the performances of a group of young film school students in “real” life in order to tease out a version of the North Korean reality, all while without telling you explicitly how the directors themselves perceived. It doesn’t get much more meta-circular than that.

Kim Jong-Il is known for his love of films, even going to the length of kidnapping a South Korean director in order to set up his own version of Hollywood  in the 70s. At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to the group of aspiring actors and actresses whose job it is to propagate every bit of Kim’s brain droppings. Naturally, you won’t see scenes of hunger-ravaged villagers stripping tree-barks – these upper-middle class of North Korea behave like any middle class in any Western society – except that they recite Kim’isms or burst into patriotic songs whenever they have been on camera for too long. The format of the documentary is simple – whatever the North Koreans didn’t cut, they (likely) showed. They were allowed to follow the daily drudgery of one actress in particular for a few days; they shadowed a director on the set of a film where he struggled to milk emotions from his extras that just wasn’t there; and watched as a short-film about vaccination took form even as the cast performed at the level of 6th-graders.

At the end, one really wonders if the entire ordeal was staged. I will use the screenshot above as Exhibit A: does that look like a closely-knit family to you? It’s supposed to be the scientist father and housewife mom of an actress. Perhaps they felt ill-at-ease being on camera… but every shot of this film portrays the same type of insincerity. The sanitized and vetted version of North Korea looked sparse and dustily ancient, an anachronism that would boil the blood of a Doctor Who fan had he/she spot a blue box in the background. In fact, it had the look of a cheap Doctor Who stage set. Time had officially stopped – even though the film director knew of modern Japan/China/S. Korea and their advances, he refuses to construct modern set and instead film in streets that were carbon-copied from 1930s Shanghai. I’m sure people would point to the power outages as a sign that it’s not all “fake” and, to be fair, there was a healthy dose of blackouts. And the directors themselves don’t opine in the film, as I said. But what I took home is a status update on North Koreans to a group of people who are consciously committed to cheat themselves, fearing that they are ill-adapted and any changes would swept them out to sea. Well, now that the film-loving Dear Leader is replaced by his missle-loving son, perhaps the people in the film would gain clarity? Or will they become rocket scientists? If you have never seen the insides of North Korea (there are many other documentaries, however, about refugees), I recommend this. Just don’t expect it to confirm/reject your perception of the situation.

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Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs, Reviews

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