Recently deceased North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il was a movie buff who owned thousands of DVDs, wrote a treatise on directing – and is even alleged to have kidnapped a South Korean director-producer, Shin Sang-ok, to help improve North Korean cinema.
Still, North Korea was no cinematic powerhouse. Though exact numbers are unknown, Variety estimates the annual cinema production of the area was seven to 10 features in the 1970s and 1980s, only four or five in the 1990s, and a mere trickle after 2000.
In the past few years, however, there have been a number of documentaries by outsiders about life behind the Kimchi Curtain, as well as Hollywood and South Korean thrillers about North Korea as a terror state.
The Game of Their Lives (2002)
British director Daniel Gordon has made three documentaries in the past decade – all with the permission of North Korean authorities. He started with The Game of Their Lives, which brings together the surviving members of the country’s 1966 World Cup quarter-finals soccer team. From there he moved on to A State of Mind (2004), which follows two girl gymnasts and their families as they prepare for the infamous North Korean Mass Games over a period of eight months. And Crossing the Line (2006) is a portrait of the last U.S. defector still living in North Korea: Virginia-born James Joseph Dresnok, who walked across the DMC in 1962.
N.C. Heikin’s documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, features the testimony of North Korean prison-camp survivors.
The Red Chapel (2010)
The winner of the best international documentary at Sundance, this Borat-style film follows journalist and filmmaker Mads Brügger on a visit to North Korea with two Danish-Korean performers, Simon Jul Jørgensen and Jacob Nossell, who pretend to be members of an inept theatre troupe that acts out children’s fables while exposing North Korean prejudices against people with disabilities.
The Juche Idea (2010)
Jim Finn’s mock-doc and propaganda-film mash-up purports to follow a South Korean filmmaker (Jung Yoon Lee) in a North Korean arts colony as she learns the Juche (self-reliance) model of filmmaking, illustrating Kim Jong-il’s film theories.
One of the first Korean blockbusters to exploit fear of North Korea, Shiri was modelled on Hollywood spy thrillers of the 1980s: The film tells the story of a North Korean female assassin who is the spearhead of a plot to force reunification. Known as “the small fish that sank Titanic,” the movie outdrew James Cameron’s film in its home territory.
Joint Security Area (2000)
An even bigger hit than Shiri, Chan-wook Park’s thriller begins with a fatal shooting that takes place on the armed border zone between North and South Korea. An international Swiss investigator of Korean descent (Lee Young-Ae) uncovers a personal tragedy born of the divided country.
Die Another Day (2002)
In Pierce Brosnan’s last outing as James Bond, the agent is betrayed and captured in North Korea and held prisoner for 14 months. Once free, he sets off to discover the link between a North Korean terrorist and an international diamond merchant out to build a super-weapon.
Team America: World Police (2004)
South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s stop-motion puppet satire of American action films sees the movie-loving Kim Jong-il planning a “peace ceremony” and inviting the Film Actors’ Guild – with Alec Baldwin as the event’s host. The Korean leader is eventually revealed to be a cockroach from another planet, who leaves on a miniature spaceship.