North Korean Cinematography in Berlin: Rosy Picture Of Everyday Life

in 54th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Sheila Johnston

North Korea produces some forty films a year. But this month was the first time ever that one of them had been invited to play at the Berlinale. On The Green Carpet was tucked away as a special one-off event deep in the programme schedule, where it was billed simply as a Korean film. And it was shown without subtitles, with a German-only voice-over commentary. However, despite these disincentives to see it, the packed screening excited enormous interest and a terrific furore.

The film’s title refers to the turf of the stadium which hosts North Korea’s mass synchronised gymnastics each year on 1 May. Against this backdrop, there unfolds a comedy about the romance between a coach who is shepherding a posse of schoolchildren through intensive preparations for the event and a former colleague who has become his superior. He has devised a show involving an exhausting series of multiple somersaults. She feels he is demanding too much of his tiny charges. But the kids are willing to go to any lengths to please their leader, Kim Jong-Il, the sun around which they all revolve like stars in a parallel solar system.

The story culminates in a lavish and astonishing display of their abilities. In a contemporary Hollywood film, the vast crowds of spectators and participants would be conjured up with digital technology. Here, they were real: these scenes were shot at one of North Korea’s actual games. Busby Berkeley would surely have killed for the chance to choreograph them.

The film presented a rosy picture of everyday life at the easternmost pole of the axis of evil. This was a land of plenty, with no signs of the severe food shortages reported to be afflicting the country; a place full of smiling faces, which constantly professed undying love for and devotion to their glorious “father-leader.”

The result certainly pressed some buttons with the predominantly German audience. The Q&A session after the screening began with a handful of pointed walk-outs and a fusillade of attacks on the film as hagiographic, Nazi-style propaganda. Jang Won-Jun, the head of the Korean Film Export and Import Corporation, deflected these criticisms, commenting merely that he was not a politician.

On The Green Carpet — which had been chosen by the Berlinale committee from a choice of ten films — was brought to Germany in order to “show our culture to other people”, he said. The national cinema remains largely isolated, apart from a small scattering of international co-productions. Revealingly, none of these are with South Korea. “We are contained by the concrete wall”, Jang Won-Jun remarked.

But North Korea watchers, both inside and outside the country, have commented on the regime’s apparent readiness to open up a little to the West. The Berlin screening of On The Green Carpet could be seen as one small leaf in this olive branch. Another sign was the eagerness of North Korean officials to attract movies and directors to the biennial Pyongyang Film Festival. Application forms were liberally distributed for the next such event, the ninth, which will take place from 12 to 20 September (contact:

Judging by this single film, North Korea’s cinema could definitely benefit from exposure to outside influences. Directed by Kim Chang Bom and Jon Kwang Il, On the Green Carpet, with its flat, high-key lighting, functional editing and over-fondness for the zoom lens, could have been made forty years ago; although the subject might be superficially similar, it was executed with none of the technical brilliance of a Leni Riefenstahl movie. Yet On The Green Carpet was a rare and fascinating curiosity — and a very welcome alternative to the mundane celebrity parade on the red carpet at the Berlinale Palast just around the corner.