Moviegoers get a glimpse of North Korea life

January 9, 2008 8:19:10 AM PST
The plot is predictable, the acting maudlin and the ideology is spread on thick, but "The Schoolgirl's Diary" has something most B-movies don't: The first North Korean film ever distributed commercially in the West, it provides a rare, if sugarcoated, glimpse of daily life in one of the world's most secretive and repressive nations.

"The Schoolgirl's Diary" - "Han Nyeohaksaengeui Ilgi," in Korean - is the story of a rebellious high schooler who questions her parents' values. Soo Ryun rails against her absentee father, a scientist who puts the good of the nation before that of his family, and her hardworking, submissive mother.

Screenwriters reportedly got help drafting the script from North Korea's reclusive and autocratic leader Kim Jong Il, who wields absolute power, tolerates no dissent and demands unquestioning allegiance from his people.

It's not giving too much away to say that the misguided heroine, played by 18-year-old Pak Mi Hyang, is brought back into the fold just in time for a tearful conclusion.

Still, what it lacks in surprises, the film makes up for in sheer novelty value.

North Korea's state-controlled film industry makes a handful of movies a year, most of them barely watchable vehicles for official propaganda.

Only a few of them have ever been seen outside the country. Last month's French premiere of "The Schoolgirl's Diary" marked the first time a North Korean movie had ever hit movie theaters outside those in a few friendly communist countries, such as China and Cuba, said Antoine Coppola, the author of several books on Korean cinema.

"North Korea feels it's misunderstood," Coppola said in a telephone interview. "This is the regime's way of communicating with the world, their way of setting the record straight."

North Korea has long had a tense relationship with neighbors South Korea and Japan and with the West. In 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush famously lumped North Korea into an "axis of evil" with Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, though relations with Washington have improved somewhat since the country agreed to dismantle its nuclear program.

The country still draws fire from human rights advocates who denounce its use of the death penalty, even for political crimes, its detention of tens of thousands of political prisoners, the torture of people who try to flee abroad and severe restrictions of freedom of expression and religion.

The movie glosses over those and other harsh realities of life in North Korea: There is no reference to the famine that is thought to have killed some 2 million people since the 1990s. The characters are plump and healthy, wear colorful clothes and hang out in high-tech settings filled with rows of computers and purring machines with flashing lights.

Although it does its best to mask everyday hardships, "The Schoolgirl's Diary" almost unwittingly gives viewers a sense of North Korea's grinding poverty.

Soo Ryun and her family live in a dilapidated two-room house with faulty electrical wiring and a blocked-up chimney. They sleep on floor mats, snuggling together under polyester blankets to keep warm, and dream of moving into a Soviet-style housing block in the city.

With its wobbly, hand-held camera, the movie often has a gritty, documentary feel. Except for when the characters interrupt a scene to burst into song, zealously belting out their undying love for the "dear general," referring to Kim Jong Il, to an accompanying accordion.

North Korean authorities have described the movie - a 2006 production they said cost about $1 million to make - as a runaway success, attracting some 8 million spectators in its home country, film expert Coppola said.

James Velaise, who heads the movie's French distributor, Pretty Pictures, called it "propaganda light."

"Sure, it has all your traditional and obvious Maoist themes, but it also has a certain charm," he said.

Velaise discovered "The Schoolgirl's Diary" at the 2006 Pyongyang Film Festival, where he was the among the few foreigners. Pleasantly surprised by the quality of the film, he set about buying the distribution rights - a complicated process in a country known for its top-heavy bureaucracy.

Because of the strictly limited Internet access in North Korea, "it was all done by ping-ponging faxes in fuzzy English back and forth," Velaise said, adding he was sure approval for the deal came from the very top. "It couldn't be done without the blessings of Kim Jong Il."

A renowned movie buff who reportedly has a 25,000-title personal film library, Kim is "Mr. North Korean cinema," Velaise said. "His name's not on the credits, but everyone was telling us he contributed to the script and editing of 'Schoolgirl's Diary,"' he said.

Velaise declined to give the value of his deal with the North Koreans, calling it only a "fair agreement."

He said North Korean authorities initially requested he deliver the money in cash, but later accepted a wire transfer that transited through four banks, including one in an obscure Russian town.

A plan to bring the film's star, Pak, to France to promote the film got similarly bogged down in red tape.

"They told me she was too busy with her film studies," Velaise said, "but I eventually understood that other, more established actresses would have been jealous if she had gotten to go galavanting around Paris while they were stuck in Pyongyang."

There are no immediate plans for a U.S. release, Velaise said.