Singapore filmmakers reveal unknown side of North Korea

Jeanette Tan
James Leong (front row, holding camera) and Lynn Lee (front row, second from left) pose on the set of a North Korean commemorative film with actors, their guide and film director Pyo. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Lee)

What do North Koreans do for leisure?

While images of masses of soldiers marching under a large flag depicting either the face of the Great Leader (Kim Il-Sung) or the Dear Leader (Kim Jong-il) unfurled may come to mind, a pair of Singapore-based documentary filmmakers are striving to show that there is more to life in the dictatorship than stock images of communism.

North Korean teenagers can be rebels who audition for film school behind their parents' backs. When the occasional DVD manages to make its way across the border, they watch foreign films — yes, even those from Hollywood — and talk about them. They also horse around at rehearsals and go on picnics outside.

But when Lynn Lee and James Leong showed the world this different side, the response they received was not all positive.

Between 2008 and 2010, the two shuttled in and out of North Korea, shooting and speaking to students at its only film school for the first time ever.

Last year, their efforts culminated in "The Great North Korean Picture Show", a feature-length documentary about the nation's film industry. It premiered in Dubai at an international film festival last year, and will open the 6th Singapore Indie Doc Fest at the Substation this Thursday.

"Some people have hated it because it doesn't make a strong overt statement about how horrible the place is," said Lee, in an interview the couple had with Yahoo Singapore last week. "But we don't do that, and we have actually got people who are very angry that we don't do that."
Leong explains that the trend of foreign-made documentaries about North Korea has been that filmmakers who manipulate or ambush their local guides and emerge with shocking, scandalising or horrific information or stories about the way the regime is conducted are lauded with international acclaim. These filmmakers, he feels, do not consider the fate of their hosts, who inevitably end up in trouble.
When an audience watches a film about North Korea that does not portray a shocking or dramatically negative picture of the country, therefore, they dismiss it as ineffective or not as good as those that do, he said.
Filming in North Korea
In North Korea, every guest is brought around by minders, and Leong noted the importance of gaining their trust as early as possible. He was also responsible to them by not flouting rules and getting them into trouble during the five trips they took there.
"They go out of their way, they take a risk in letting you into the country to do something," he said. "The people who were with us were very friendly, very gracious; they generally did try to get us as much access as possible even though it was quite clearly difficult for them to do that.
The footage Leong took had to be reviewed by censors at the end of each day, and the next morning, the pair would be issued a list of shots they would prefer not to be included in the film for various reasons.
"The censors looked for things that were a little bit different than what we thought they would — they're not interested in everyday interactions, you know; they were interested in more specific stuff," said Lee. Shots of bicycles, blackouts, electrical wires and a workman with his shirt unbuttoned could have been signs of a backward, untidy city, whereas a scene where soldiers on a set were being told off by the film director was allowed.
"Stuff we never thought would be sensitive were stuff that they had problems with, and yet they passed all the scenes of the soldiers on set with Director Pyo yelling at them," she added.
Lee stressed, however, that they never interfered with the shooting process. In fact, perhaps the biggest vote of trust that the North Koreans gave to the pair was that they were allowed to leave with everything they shot, except for some scenes from one visit to a museum where Leong unwittingly flouted aesthetic rules governing the shooting of pictures of the Dear Leader and the Great Leader: fully framed, and straight on — no cropping, panning or zooming. The same goes for their sayings that sometimes accompany their pictures.
There were scenes that eventually do appear in "The Great North Korean Picture Show" that the locals were not pleased with, but which Lee and Leong fought to include — three blackouts and a scene of two students reading a film theory book aloud, for instance. Ultimately, though, Lee said they did not demand that they removed the "offending" scenes.
"Actually, Mr Kim (their guide) still emails me regularly. In fact, he sent me an email two days ago, asking us whether we wanted to go back and make another film!" said Lee.
What the people are like

But yet, one big takeaway for Lee was that the North Koreans are just like people from everywhere else in many ways. On one hand, the North Koreans who appeared on camera spoke proudly of and with great belief in the propaganda films they had a hand in making — they saw real purpose in it. On the other, when off-camera, they were people who had hobbies and ambitions.
The couple shared how one of the film students told them his favourite film was "Léon: The Professional", directed by Luc Besson, and another shared how she went behind her parents' backs to audition for film school, so she could study to be an actress, and only informed them of her ambition when she gained acceptance. The filmmakers also played table tennis with the locals in the basement of their hotel, talked about movies and food, and picnicked in the countryside with their guides.

Older characters in the film, like the propaganda film director Pyo, have no difficulty conveying their strong and very sincere loyalty to the regime.
"He's a huge, larger-than-life character, and when he's on set… just looking at him, you don't get the feeling that 'here is a man who is repressed or unfree'," said Leong. "You hear him speak, and you know that he believes what he said."
Leong noted also that having grown up in Pyongyang, with privileged lives, the young students whom they interviewed and followed had an easier time believing what they were told.
"If you handpick very privileged North Koreans to make propaganda about how wonderful life is in North Korea, they would have no conflict at all making that propaganda because to them, it's the truth," he said.
"And how human is that? It applies to everyone," he continued. "As Singaporeans, a lot of people would say (the system) works because my life is good… It's like you can say life is great here because it's great for you, but you don't see that it's not so great for other people and it's the same all over the world. It's exactly the same."
"The Great North Korean Picture Show" is opening for the 6th Singapore Indie Doc Fest at the Substation on Thursday, 5 September. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.