PYONGYANG, North Korea — One of the cinema world’s most mysterious events, the Pyongyang Intl. Film Festival, unfurled its 10th edition Sept. 13-22 amid talk of beefing up local production and revitalizing the nation’s industry. While Americans were barred from attending, reps from other major territories were intrigued to see what a North Korean film fest was like.
PIFF, which shares the same acronym as its better-known South Korean cousin, the Pusan Intl. Film Festival, unspooled 42 features, plus docus, shorts and toons during its 10 days in several sites across the North Korean capital.
Fest, which started in 1987, has been held every other year since its second edition in 1990. Main venue was the five-plex Pyongyang Intl. Cinema House, a vast edifice next to the 47-story Yanggakdo Hotel, on an island in the Taedong River, where all fest guests and personnel were housed during the event. Plex’s screens range from a 2,000-seater to a 50-seat auditorium, with crowds of locals assembling every day for screenings, plus snacks at the food stalls lining the entrance.
Bigger movies, like German opener “The Miracle of Bern,” U.K. comedies “Bean” and “Nanny McPhee” and French drama “Cache,” played downtown in the 3,000-seat People’s Palace of Culture to SRO auds. One major hit was the Hong Kong extended version of Stephen Chow’s “Shaolin Soccer,” which had locals rocking in their seats.
The 72-title program was a mixture of newish movies and ones several years old. Germany was strongly repped, with “Bern,” “Napola,” “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” “Shadows of Time” and Hitler saga “Downfall.” The U.K. (“Bride and Prejudice”) and France fielded three features each; other Euro attendees included Sweden (vampire pic “Frostbite”), Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Poland and Czech Republic. Russia fielded five titles and Asia was repped by product from China (“You and Me,” “A Time to Love”), Indonesia (“Joni’s Promise”), Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, India and Sri Lanka.
Aside from the obvious no-show of pics from South Korea, the most notable absence at PIFF was U.S. pics. Both films and visitors from the U.S. are verboten in the North, though some university students and third-year acting students at the Pyongyang Drama & Movie Institute can watch U.S. fare for study purposes.
Young people in the capital are knowledgeable about Western stars and, as in South Korea and other Asian countries, hang out at so-called “video-bang” or KTV joints, where pix are screened in individual rooms similar to karaoke booths.
Main focus for many of the 120-plus foreign guests — a motley collection of official delegates, helmers, producers, buyers (from France and Germany) and Asiaphile crix — was North Korean fare. However, only two new features, both released locally in August, played at the fest: Jang In-hak’s “The Schoolgirl’s Diary” and Phyo Kwang’s anti-Japanese period actioner “Pyongyang Nalpharam.”
A smoothly produced drama about a teen daughter’s relationship with her often-absent father, “Diary,” starring 18-year-old thesp Pak Mi-hyang, looks likely to show up on the Euro fest circuit next year. Locally, pic drew some 8 million admissions (in a country of around 23 million).
Eighth feature of former d.p. Phyo, “Nalpharam,” starring 25-year-old teen heartthrob Ri Ryong-hun, racked up some 6 million admissions. Both Ri and Pak were very visible during the fest, repping the industry.
Though feature production was down to two this year, plans are afoot to beef up local production to five to seven features next year.
The word has come down from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, a well-known movie buff with a private collection reputed to contain 20,000 titles, to upgrade the industry’s tech aspects, with $3 million recently invested in new equipment.
“Nalpharam” helmer Phyo starts lensing a big-budget historical action-drama, set during the Goguryo period, in November, again starring Ri.
With all actors and filmmakers on monthly salaries from the three state-owned movie studios, budgets are difficult to calculate in Western terms, although an average movie costs around $100,000. Country has some 500 screens, including mobile units and workplace units, with half a dozen hardtops in Pyongyang itself.
Main foreign markets for the movies are China, Vietnam, Iran and India, with toons popular items. Dealmaking remains difficult due to many countries blocking North Korean bank accounts overseas, but officials at Korea Film Export & Import Corp. seem eager to do biz.
PIFF held a small film market in the lobby of the Yanggakdo Hotel, where screening booths were available for watching local product on videocassette.