No stars, no swag, but what a crowd!

Times Staff Writer

You know you’re not in Cannes when the all-female marching band, wearing white go-go boots, belts out communist anthems at the opening ceremony.

This is a film festival like none other in the world.

There are no movie stars, no paparazzi, hardly any press. No studio executives doing deals on their BlackBerrys -- cellphones and other wireless devices are banned in North Korea.

For that matter, so are most movies. North Korea is the closest thing the world has to a hermetically sealed society. There is no Internet. Radios and televisions are welded to government stations. Yet every two years since 1987, North Korea has opened its doors, and its screens, just enough to host the Pyongyang International Film Festival.


Back in the days when North Korea had allies, it was called the “Film Festival of Non-Aligned and Other Developing Countries.” Now that the government in Pyongyang has few real friends, it accepts entries from countries that are at least not overtly hostile.

Hollywood need not apply.

“It is practically the only occasion where North Koreans can see foreign films,” said Uwe Schmelter, who heads the Japan office of the Goethe Institute, the German cultural organization that supplied Germany’s films to the festival.

The film festival is thought to have been the brainchild of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who spent much of his youth obsessed with movies and is believed to have a personal library of 20,000 titles.

As the band played on for last month’s opening ceremony, an unlikely mingling of Communist Party apparatchiks and European filmmakers filed up a long ramp past a row of Korean movie posters at the Pyongyang International Cinema, a poured-concrete structure with a spiral design that must have looked very modernistic in the 1980s.

Although the sun was still high over the capital on the unseasonably warm afternoon, most people wore black, the North Korean cadres buttoned into stiff business suits with the obligatory badges of founding father Kim Il Sung on their lapels, the European men in jeans.

Adding a little glamour, a few of the visiting women wore diaphanous sleeveless outfits, their blond hair cascading over bared shoulders, a curious sight in a country where people are not expected to show arms, knees or midriffs.

The culture clash is such that the festival organizers keep the foreign attendees and the North Koreans apart. Like other visitors in Pyongyang, the filmgoers were escorted at all times by official guides, better known as minders. Foreigners were lodged in the Yanggakdo Hotel on an island in the middle of the Taedong River, which runs through town -- a further disincentive to anyone who might want to wander off into the city. (Visitors to Pyongyang call the hotel “Alcatraz.”)

Without any opportunities to explore, evenings were spent on the hotel’s 47th floor in a revolving restaurant that no longer revolves, with green carpeting that looks like it was stripped from a miniature golf course.

“You can’t just go up to people and have a little chat about film,” said Anke Redl, who works for a German film distributor based in Beijing.


This year, 110 films from 46 nations were screened, among them China, Russia, Germany, Sweden, Britain, Egypt and Iran. Although most films aren’t overtly propagandistic, there is a strong preference for themes emphasizing family values, loyalty, the temptations of money.

“The Tender Heart,” a little-known Chinese film that opened the 10-day festival, is about a small boy searching for the mother who abandoned him and his father in search of riches in the city. Because there was no budget for subtitles, the film had a Korean-language voice-over with an adult actress reading the boy’s histrionic dialogue. Several members of the audience walked out in disgust before the film was over.

But things picked up from there. A Chinese war film, “Assembly,” by acclaimed director Feng Xiaogang and a big hit last year in China, won the grand prize at the closing ceremony.

Screenings of two British films, “Atonement” and “Elizabeth I: The Golden Age,” were so crowded that guards had to bar the doors to prevent gate-crashers. Two years ago, a mob overpowered security to get into a sold-out showing of a Swedish vampire film.

“I’ve seen them beating down the doors,” said Henrik Nydqvist, a Swedish producer who has attended the festival three times since 2004.

He says filmmakers like to attend Pyongyang’s festival despite the limited deal-making opportunities because of the passion of the crowds: “Their emotional responses are very direct and natural. They don’t anticipate the endings of the film. This is something you can’t see in Europe, and it is very refreshing.”

The Ministry of Culture, which oversees the festival, pays for filmmakers to attend. Most come from European countries that have diplomatic relations with North Korea; others come from China.

Tickets are usually distributed through workplaces and universities, often through the ruling Workers’ Party, but many end up being resold by scalpers.

“Going to the film festival is very popular. Kids of high party officials get tickets that they resell to others at the university,” said Zhu Sung-ha, a 34-year-old graduate of Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung University, who defected to South Korea in 2001. He said North Korean students view the festival as not only a chance to see foreign films, but to glimpse the outside world.

“They want to see the reality of developed countries,” Zhu said. “The North Korean government doesn’t really want people to see it, so they show a lot of films from Third World countries like Iran and Egypt.”

One of the underlying myths of this country is that people are lucky to be born North Korean. (“We have nothing to envy in this world,” goes a popular slogan.) So the government doesn’t want the people salivating over the cars, cellphones or kitchen appliances that show up in movies. Festival organizers get around that by favoring historical dramas that won’t invite North Koreans to compare their lifestyles with those of the people depicted in the films.

As Culture Minister Kang Nung Su said at the opening ceremony, film must not “harm the sound mind of the people.”


Still, participating countries have tried over the years to send films that would raise the public consciousness. There have been films about German reunification (a sore subject for a regime that fears being swallowed up by wealthier South Korea) and a film about Auschwitz, also touchy given the analogies to North Korea’s labor camps for political undesirables.

This year, the festival screened the Austrian-German production “The Counterfeiters,” a curious choice given the evidence that North Korea is a major counterfeiter of U.S. currency.

“We try to see how far we can go,” said the Goethe Institute’s Schmelter. “We are surprised and grateful. We have never gotten a ‘no’ for a German film.”

This year, the festival had only one new North Korean movie, “The Kites Flying in the Sky,” about a woman who cares for orphans. It was not well-received, with foreign viewers dismissing it as syrupy and propagandistic. Two years ago, the North Korean film “A Schoolgirl’s Diary” was a surprising success at the festival and went on to Cannes.

North Korea’s film industry was once surprisingly robust, nurtured by the personal interest of Kim Jong Il. In the 1970s and ‘80s, while being groomed to succeed his father, Kim oversaw the country’s film studios and arranged the kidnapping of a South Korean actress and her director husband to help him make movies. He also wrote a book, “On the Art of Cinema,” on how movies can be used to instill correct thinking.

Pyongyang has at least a dozen cinemas, and six were used for the festival. Even small towns have their own movie theater, although nowadays much of what’s shown is reruns of old North Korean films.

A popular attraction for both foreigners and North Koreans are the film studios on the outskirts of Pyongyang. Visitors wandered through mock-ups of 1950s South Korean and Japanese streets, or at least a communist propagandist’s vision of them: girlie bars, cheap cabarets, a blood bank where the poor could sell their blood to the capitalist oppressors, and a pet food company. (North Koreans used to think keeping pets was a Western indulgence.)

North Korean visitors seemed more interested in a fortress where they could try on costumes of ancient Korean warriors and get their photographs taken. It didn’t appear that any filmmaking was taking place, although a tour guide insisted that the studios are still used.

The guide, Choi Heon Yul, boasted that Kim had visited 500 times to offer his personal guidance, and once climbed a tower with a camera to make sure a scene was correctly filmed.


But Kim hasn’t been to the studios in more than two years -- whether because of ill health, as many reports claim, or lack of interest is unclear.

“Kim Jong Il is very busy, leading the party and the revolution,” Choi said. He said 10 to 12 movies were filmed at the studios each year, but other North Korean officials say the number is much lower and that lack of funding has crippled the country’s film industry.

Another problem they are reluctant to discuss: Despite the ban on foreign films, cheap, pirated DVDs from China are smuggled across the border and screened illegally in the privacy of people’s homes.

Among the most popular, say North Korean defectors, is “Titanic,” in part because of a mystical belief that the ship’s sinking was related to the birth the same day, April 15, 1912, of Kim Il Sung. Other favorites are South Korean soap operas, Chinese kung fu movies -- and pornography from any nation.