North Korea busy with film business

Variety critic finds flexible festival, more titles

PYONGYANG — As the West wondered about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and world leaders worried about the country restarting its nuclear reactor, the foreign guests from some 30 or so countries (including most of Europe and Asia, but not, natch, the U.S. or South Korea) that trekked to the 11th Pyongyang Intl. Film Festival were singularly focused on the movies.

The biannual Pyongyang fest has always been a curiosity on the circuit, partly because of communist North Korea’s rep for secrecy and inaccessibility, and partly because of the almost unknown status of its moviemaking.

In some respects — notably, a natural reflex to default into “no” when any request is made to do this or that — the country lives up to some of its Lewis Carroll-like stories. But in many other respects, as all visitors attested, it simply doesn’t measure up to many of the cliches endlessly recycled by most foreign media.

As long as due respect is shown to leader Kim, and his late father, Kim Il Song — both genuinely respected figures — people felt free to ask any questions of their young guides/translators, and there’s no “vetting” of remarks. There’s no visible presence of military on the streets. Average Koreans in the streets and Pyongyang restaurants are curious but friendly. And although any off-sked expeditions had to be initially OK’d by the guides, after a few days mutual suspicion on both sides wore off and the sked became much more flexible.

The festival hotel, the Yanggakdo Intl., was also busy with foreign tour groups, largely from Southeast Asia but also from Europe and elsewhere. Many travel companies now arrange tours, and even Yank passport holders are now allowed in for five days to visit the famous Arirang and mass gymnastic games held every fall for six weeks.

Luggage is occasionally casually searched at Pyongyang airport, but computers are allowed in — this writer shared a laugh with the customs officer who saw my (South Korean) Samsung laptop. Only cell phones have to be left in care of customs till you leave, but even hardened Blackberry addicts didn’t miss them after a day or so. (As one guest observed, there may not even be a signal to pick up, anyway). You can make or receive international calls from your room, send faxes and check emails in the lobby — and watch BBC World News round the clock on TV.

The truth of the matter is that disorganization rather than controls was what frustrated foreign guests more as the fest progressed. The fest is still learning that organizing an international event is no simple matter.

The same can be said for its industry the past few years. But from information assembled by Variety from several sources, it looks like the North Korean film industry could be set for a production rebound.

Though only one new North Korean film unspooled during the fest, some six or seven features are said to be awaiting approval, or reshoots, prior to release later this year or early in 2009. One industry source even puts the number of new pics as high as 10.

That would bring North Korea to the annual production pace it set during the 1970s and ’80s, when annual production was at seven to 10 features, only to fall to four or five in the ’90s, and to a trickle after 2000.

Theoretically, Kim has to approve all pictures that are made. A noted film fan said to have a personal library of some 20,000 titles, he was so dissatisfied with the production that he shut down the whole industry for eight months in 2005 and instructed filmmakers to watch 25 “world masterpieces” of his choosing.

PIFF organizers reported 500 titles were submitted this year, many more than two years ago; filmmakers interviewed by Variety largely said they’d heard of the fest and were simply curious to attend.

Granted, they do have a way to go, but it is a start.

This year’s PIFF — slogan: “For Independence, Peace and Friendship!” — kicked off Sept. 17 at the four-screen Pyongyang Intl. Cinema House with a short ceremony in the 2,000-seat Hall No. 1 complete with performing majorettes.

After a brief speech by culture minister/PIFF chairman Kang Nung Su, intro-ing the program, the fest flag was hoisted by a bevy of foreign guests.

As senior film critic of Variety, I was asked to make a three-minute speech welcoming fest attendees — the first time a foreign journalist had been asked to do this in the fest’s history. My speech ranged over the power of movies to entertain and educate, the vast range of worldwide distribution systems, and how fests are “the lifeblood of a truly international film community.”

After the introduction of the five-member jury, headed by veteran Chinese helmer Huang Jianxin and including fellow vet, Tunisian director Rachid Ferchiou, the opening film, the mainland Chinese weepie “The Tender Feeling,” was screened.

But the sole North Korean feature shown at PIFF, “The Kites Flying in the Sky” by Phyo Kwang and Kim Hyon Chol, drew a ho-hum reception from foreign guests and industryites. The true story of a former marathon champ who’s devoted her life to raising orphans was reckoned to lack the technical and dramatic smarts that made “Schoolgirl’s Diary” — the “discovery” of PIFF 2006 — workable as a curio in the West.

However, “Kites” has been a big hit locally. Officially preemed Feb. 16, it became the first movie to be shown on TV (several times) before general release in June. It’s also one of the rare films that required no reshoots prior to approval.

This year’s competition had no world preems, but it showed a notable improvement over the last edition’s. The 16 titles included the U.K.’s “Atonement,” France’s “The Page Turner,” Italy’s “Night Bus,” Lithuania’s “Loss,” Germany’s “And Along Came Tourists,” Australia’s “Unfinished Sky” and the Czech Republic’s “Empties.”

As well as a docu and a shorts competition, special screenings included “The Counterfeiters” and “Elizabeth I: The Golden Age.” The 46-title Info section was a grab-bag of titles from the past 10 years, some new, some old.

Yank and South Korean movies are still officially shut out of the country, though many of the former can be watched by language, acting and film students.

Aside from docus, most pics played to packed houses at the eight screens used from the capital’s 13 total. Sources estimated total admissions should be around 120,000.

At around 70, foreign guests numbered about the same as two years ago. Execs included Wouter Barendrecht, co-chairman of sales company Fortissimo Films, which sent seven titles to the fest, selected from its catalog by the North Koreans.

“I thought it was important for our films to be seen by North Korean audiences,” said Barendrecht, who personally sat in on a packed screening of one, the Dutch musical “Yes Nurse! No Nurse!”