In N. Korea, serenity is surreal

Pyongyang hosts a fest that defies expectations

BEIJING — There’s no bigger conversation-stopper than, “I’m off to North Korea next week.”

When you add, “I’m going to the Pyongyang Intl. Film Festival,” jaws really hit the ground. But not only does North Korea have a biannual festival, which celebrated its 10th anni this September, it also has a film industry, dating back to 1949, the year after the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was first proclaimed.

Few Western festgoers, especially journalists, ever make the trip, and Variety was probably the first industry paper to be invited to the reclusive event. But PIFF — which ironically shares the same acronym as South Korea’s leading sprocket opera, the Pusan Intl. Film Festival — is neither that remote nor that inaccessible.

A French distrib, who’s made a name with South Korean fare, and a rep from Cannes’ Directors Fortnight were among this year’s guests; Berlinale topper Dieter Kosslick swung through for two days, on a trip arranged via the Goethe Institut; and a buyer for German channel Premiere was along for his second visit.

Foreign movie stars even make it occasionally. Four years ago, Jet Li winged in to tubthump a movie.

We found a country that’s little like what you’ve been led to believe. Of the 100 or so foreign guests, ranging from diplomats and filmmakers to buyers and Asiaphile movie critics, few came away with negative impressions. .

We were all keenly aware that the country was a single-party state regarded as a pariah by some Western governments. But what we saw of it — both in the capital and in the countryside — seemed different from the grim, edge-of-starvation portraits in much of the Western media.

Some of our guides/interpreters — student volunteers, not professional apparatchiks — had lived outside the country for a while, and were as curious about the West as we were curious about their country. We traded info about Brangelina’s latest child for info about their lifestyles. We discussed the latest laptop models, PC games and digital cameras as they fed us info about day-to-day life and the doings of the late Great Leader (Kim Il-song) and present Dear Leader (his son, Kim Jong-il).

Over coffee and cigarettes in the fest’s center, the Yanggakdo Hotel, we met directors and actors keen to talk about their work, and officials at state-owned Korea Film Export & Import Corp. (Korfilm) eager to do business.

We also met North Koreans puzzled over why they’re picked on by the West.

The capital, Pyongyang, is an architecturally dazzling, “planned” garden city designed to show the best of the DPRK’s brand of socialism.

North Koreans need a permit to live there, so, unlike Seoul, which also was effectively built from scratch after the devastation of the Korean War but has seen massive migration from the countryside during the past 40 years, the population remains relatively stable at around 2 million.

The surprise is that Pyongyang isn’t the “Truman Show” it’s often painted in the West. It’s a fully functioning, if placid, city — not an empty, cardboard showcase devoid of people walking in the streets. Pyongyangers seem to go about their lives like anyone else, and on weekends they hang out in parks and squares.

True, there were few cars on the streets compared with most of the world’s capitals; the subway shuts down at 8 p.m.; and there’s little street lighting in the evenings. Due to international embargoes, energy remains the country’s biggest problem and gasoline its most precious commodity.

“In many respects, the North Korea experienced by any visiting foreigner is a sanitized version, its political life absolutely invisible and the daily lives of average people, both in favored Pyongyang and the sticks, impossible to penetrate. Essentially, we were like tourists in any country, just skimming the surface.”

Like the countryside outside Pyongyang — far more “real” Korea than the South’s manicured and industrialized landscape — there’s a quality to the capital that’s a refreshing break from the audiovisual assault of most other cities. No advertising (apart from a couple billboards for cars), no graffiti, no Starbucks or branded stores, and streets cleaner than Singapore or Toronto.

Beyond the official tours (the eerily peaceful DMZ, Kim Il-song’s spectacular Memorial Palace, etc.), we could go pretty much where we wanted, and change the official program at will. There was no visible presence of military or police on the streets. When we didn’t need the guides, we’d say so, and they’d go off to the bowling alley or pool tables in the hotel basement.

When we said we wanted to go into town for dinner, our guides just came along. We chose the restaurant from our guidebooks, paid for the meal (in Euros, Chinese yuan or U.S. dollars), and all drank and dined together. In one, the Minjuk, groups of South Koreans got merrily drunk and sang wistful songs about reunification along with the girl-band onstage.

For bizzers in the group, the strangest experience was visiting Korea Film Studio on the northeast outskirts of town. On the seven backlots of standing sets (Chosun-era Korea, poor rural class, rich rural class, 1930s Chinese and Japanese streets, ’30s and ’50s Seoul streets), nothing was shooting. Only two features have been released this year, though production is expected to rise to five to seven features next year, following a technical upgrade and word from Kim Jong-il, a movie buff, that the pic industry must improve.

Like the untapped tourist potential of the country as a whole, PIFF is a sleeping curio. I talked marketing ideas with a Korfilm guy — PIFF T-shirts, bags, baseball caps and posters — and sat in on a good-humored pic-buying negotiation in the Yanggakdo’s bar. Lack of knowledge about the realities of market prices was the main stumbling block, not the will to do business. As elsewhere in Asia, personal trust and face-to-face meetings are the key to success.

Before boarding the Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang, mainland Chinese friends had joked, “Well, you’ll be dying for a good meal when you get back.” South Korean pals had said, “Mind you’re not kidnapped, ha-ha.” Western acquaintances gasped, “Wow,” while Americans … well, U.S. passport holders, like U.S. movies, aren’t allowed into North Korea, so that was that.

I’d been to Albania in the ’70s, Libya in the ’80s and Burma in the ’90s, but nothing had prepared me for the surprise — albeit from a privileged viewpoint as an invited guest — of North Korea. As we crossed the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China, on our 23-hour train ride back to Beijing, it was like journeying forward 50 years in time.

Ahead was all the paraphernalia of life in modern China — traffic, neon, advertising, cell phones, hustle and bustle. Did we dream the past week? No. Did we want to go back? Yes. Did we learn a little about our own over-complicated way of life? Maybe.

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