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Propaganda Film Reveals All

[International Scholars Series 1]
Prof. Antoine Coppola, Sungkyunkwan University, Seoul  |  2012-02-01 10:31

Entering 2012, Daily NK has been working harder than ever to bring new voices to discussion of the Korean Peninsula's future, and as part of this effort is pleased to be able to publish a new guest column by Prof. Antoine Coppola, a French scholar of film who specializes in Korean cinema. Prof. Coppola is currently teaching at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul.

The film propaganda of the North Korean military dictatorship has adopted, bit-by-bit, the Chinese and USSR models, modified to suit its own purposes. The recent succession to the 'throne' is providing us with new examples of this, one of the most prominent of which was the documentary released to commemorate the birthday of the new leader on January 8th.

Visual symbols marking the descent from the previous regime

The documentary particularly emphasizes things marking the continuity between the grandfather Kim Il Sung, the father Kim Jong Il and the son Kim Jong Eun. In the first scenes, for example, Kim Jong Eun proudly rides a stallion. We can see in this an allusion to the 'Chollima' horse, a winged horse in Korean mythology and a symbol of fast and irresistible progress formerly used by Kim Il Sung to echo Maos Great Leap Forward. The film will thus be built around the leitmotiv of a cavalier on a road packed with adversity, we are sure, but leading to where?

Other symbols in the film include: the sacred Mt. Baekdu (fake official birthplace of Kim Jong Il in the image of mythological founding father Tangun), sunshine piercing the clouds (Kim Il Sung as guide and sun to the people) and a reprise of the tower of Juche, monument to the glory of Kimilsungism. Visual parallels of familial descent are also numerous in number: black and white archive pictures fix the physical resemblance between Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Eun by means of an alternated montage; the father and son are shown making the same gestures during the same official visits; the image of the grandfather and the father handing over a gun to the son is pressed; finally, the son is depicted as studious, reading his fathers writings.

Yet, this harmony seems betrayed at the point when Kim Jong Eun, who is supposed to be admiring the pictures and works of his father, remains unmoved and thus is not portrayed with what would typically be a very North Korean degree of sentimentalism. In another striking scene, the son seems enthusiastic about explaining to his father the prowess of an amusement park attraction, but the father remains unmoved behind his sunglasses, giving his son, for an instant, a childish image.

Emphasis of relations with the army and the image of a country prepared for war

A multitude of scenes attempt to illustrate the good relations between Kim Jong Eun and military officers, older than he though they are. The entire military is displayed: marine, air force and army. We can see aged officers smiling and taking notes when the young commander speaks. This is coupled with demonstrations of military power, until a mysterious rocket named 'Chosun' is sent to the stars.

Yet this theme seems not to take root very well. For example, when the aged marine officers look like they are taking notes in front of Kim Jong Eun, who is trying to give authoritative orders, Kim himself does not seem to believe in what he is doing. He actually ends up revealing that all is staged when a smile appears on his face. He even bursts out laughing, but not with the sarcastic laughter of dictators; with the laughter of a young prince forced into his actions.

'Songun', the military-first order of North Korea, is well respected in the piece; however, Kim Jong Eun actually has difficulty following his fathers path in this domain. We see him wearing an ill-fitting uniform while pretending to drive a 'modern' tank, yet he is still alone.

The pushing of 'Songun' overwhelms most mentions of industry and the peasantry and working classes. Actually, we have to wait until the very end of the documentary to see even brief mention of a visit to a deserted factory and another to an enterprise making flat television screens. Then, upon arriving, Kim Jong Eun simply stands next to employees with blank faces. The countryside is barely shown. This aspect of the film is clearly botched, except for a hard-to-date visit to a dam under construction (in which an artificial alternated montage shows the very serious father with a son again tempted to burst out laughing at any moment). The dam and its lake/reservoir nevertheless betray the need for reassurance, given the countrys dependence on its water resources.

Overall, the multitudinous visits in the film make apparent a certain weariness in the young leader, a young king suddenly in charge, making distant visits to his kingdom.

Propaganda style without alteration

We can retrace through the film hints of a soviet propaganda movie: the leitmotiv of the chiefs march forward through the repetition of his voyages by car, train, boat etc. through wild nature symbolizing adversity (the enemy is not represented visually, except for the South Korean mountains on the far horizon). The leader is enthroned by nature, he wrestles with her. In fact, it seems that the adversary is everywhere.

Elsewhere, there is the example of unidentifiable mountains among fields that enable the grandfather, the father and the son to meet as if by magic. They are shown in front of hysterical crowds. The 'vertical montage' (sound-image) shows Kim Il Sungs statue with his arm pointing towards the mountains in the South to the menacing sound of guns coming from nowhere; unless it is supposed to represent the very idea of battle. This style is very similar to the one used in the Soviet bloc in the 1960s. Neither new modern visual effects nor new narrative styles are used.

More typically Korean is the female voice in the piece chanting, at the same time complaining, and simultaneously offering semi-religious incantation, laudatory and filled with superlatives for the leaders and their actions. It indicates that we are no longer in the rational or explanatory field, but in the assertion of mystical beliefs.

In general, the documentary style is simplistic, addressing a public deprived of critical senses or maybe just compliant; we can see this in scenes on the verge of ridicule: accelerated applauding masses, comical repetition of medal awarding, the pontifical litany of the voice-over etc. Judging from the visible shadows and the overall picture quality, light portable cameras were used, accompanied by rudimentary lighting.

In propaganda movies, the emphasis of certain images and themes denote the given regimes real problems: here, it is Kims relationship with the army and the regimes elders who have to accept him, or not; the idea of hereditary succession to a regime pretending to be a 'peoples republic' that also justifies itself by playing on Korean monarchic and mythological traditions. Last but not least is the competence of the young king to reign with authority when faced with adversity: here, in particular, Kim Jong Euns repeated laughter suggests the contrary.

This all seems very abstract; the son on his horse is depicted riding down roads sometimes just briefly shown, and sometimes laboriously shown to be part of the same territory as nature itself (sea, earth, sky) rather than the actual socio-economic reality. The refusal to renew the propaganda movie techniques used is, from a Western point of view, a sign of decadence in a regimes communication strategies (we should note that Kim Jong Il reformed North Korean cinema and, in the 1990s, propaganda). But seen from Asia, where stability is more valuable than change, this is not quite the case.
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