About the Author
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Park Ji Woo
Park Ji Woo is author of the "North Korean in New York" series. She left North Korea in the mid 2000s and is now living in New York City, New York.
Editing by Nara Han / Artwork by NK NEWS illustrator Cammy Smithwick
I love watching movies. I like romantic comedies more than action films or thrillers. But summer is the season of action movies in America – there are a lot of Sci-Fi action movies on the screens! The stories are simple and almost always the same; either aliens attacking the Earth or “some bad guys” trying to destroy the US. I cannot understand why some American directors like to imagine extreme disasters. Two days ago, I went to watch the Man of Steel in 3D. To be honest, it was really boring for me because it was too long and the story was the same as previous hero movies. The 3D motion and images hurt my eyes a lot so I had to close my eyes many times during the movie. I think I am not used to 3D technology.
When I was in South Korea, I went to the movies almost every other week. Since every week there would be new and different genres of movies on the screens, I was always able to choose the one I liked. Besides, since many theaters had “early morning and midnight” discounts, I could get lower priced tickets. In New York City, however, the prices are almost twice as expensive. I cannot afford to go movies as regularly as in Seoul, but I try to do it once a month.
Since theaters in New York City are really different from those in Seoul, I have had many interesting experiences in New York City. In Seoul when we get to the theater, first thing we do is to get a ticket number and wait for our turn. For example, if my number ticket says “78,” I would wait until the red square electronic sign shows “78.” If there are many people before my turn, I can go to other places to spend my time. There is no point in worrying about someone cuts in line. It means we do not have to stand in long lines for buying tickets. However, in New York City, every time I go to the AMC Theater in Times Square, there are always several long lines so I have to look for the shortest one in order to buy tickets faster. What makes me really upset is that sometimes I have to wait 30 minutes for my turn, but in the end the staff tells me, “It’s already sold out,” with a smile. The staffs’ kindness wounds me even more.
Another difference between New York City and Seoul is that in New York City there are no seats numbers on the tickets. It makes it so difficult to enjoy the movies. I remember during the winter break, my friends and I went to watch “Les Misérables.” The staff told us to go to the third floor, so we did. We found out three nice seats in the center of the theater. After watching 50-minutes of advertising, we realized we were in the wrong theater. We ran out of the theater immediately and went to the one we were supposed to be in. Sadly, the movie had been playing for 30 minutes. The worst thing was that there were no seats for us so we had to sit down on the cold and dirty floor. In Seoul, I have never had such a bad experience in the theater because every ticket has seat number. Even though we were sometimes late for the movies, we never had to worry about losing seats. Since there are exact directions and names of the theaters on the tickets, it is almost impossible to be in a wrong theater. Watching movies conveniently and pleasantly is one thing that I miss about Seoul.
I remember that my father is a huge movie fan. I think it is why I like movies so much. Every factory and farm has their own theater in North Korea. Of course, all of them are run by the government. I had been in three different theaters in my hometown and we didn’t pay to watch the movies; I don’t even remember having tickets. Unlike New York City and Seoul, the theaters in my hometown rarely showed new movies. There were only three or four movies on the screens during the entire year, but my father went to watch the same movies very often. He never went to movies with my mother and my younger sister; he always went there only with me. It might be because my mother was usually busy making money or seeking food, so she could not afford the time to watch movies. Like most North Korean women, she was wholly responsible for the daily meals of my family. And my younger sister was too young to go to the theater. I was the only person who could accompany my father.
We usually went to the biggest theater in my hometown. It was located in the center of the city and really close to the statue of Kim Jong Suk, the mother of Kim Jong Il. Since she was born in my hometown, Hoeryong, there is a giant statue of her. The theater was a three-storey grey building. Although it was not as magnificent as the Empire State Building in New York City, I liked it so much because of the colorful movie posters on its external walls. Compared to the movie posters in New York City or Seoul, North Korean movie posters were not impressive at all. Some of them just looked like the Communist propaganda posters. However, most of them showed a lot of emotions and humanity. Unlike those propaganda posters, the characters on the movie posters smiled and cried just like I did. They were paintings, not photographs, but the characters were as vivid as in the pictures. However, sometimes I was not able to see the main actors’ or actresses’ facial expressions clearly. Maybe the rain and wind erased the details.
Getting into the theater was really difficult for us; almost like a battle. The seats were always limited and too many people tried to see the movies. As a result, my father and I had to go there and stand in line two hours before the movies began; otherwise, we could not get into the theater. In retrospect, it’s funny because that part is similar to going to the movies in New York City. I remember there was a long, cramped, steel passageway. People would stand and line up in the order of arrival. From a distance, people in the steel passageway looked like chickens in steel-barred cages. Once the door was opened, people would pour into the theater quickly. Despite the fact that the door was so narrow that only one person could pass at a time, many people tried to get in at the same time. Therefore, there were always fights going on. There were so many young people who went to movies and they were really aggressive and violent. They liked cutting in line rather than coming earlier and waiting for their turn. My father was a gentle man and he did not like fighting with those young people. Every time he saw someone jumping in, he just let them go. I was a little disappointed. I wished my father were a strong superman.
Like in New York City, we did not have seat numbers in the theater. If we were early and lucky, we could get a seat; if not, we would sit down on the aisles. I usually sit on my father’s knees because bringing a seven or eight years old child to the theater was unusual. If I had occupied one seat, people would have yelled at us. The seats were made out of wood so they were not as comfortable as those in the AMC Theater in Times Square. For my father, sitting on the cold and hard seat and having me on his knees for two hours would have been real torture, but he never showed me any discomfort.
I remember some parts of the movies were in black and white, but some parts of them were colored. The screen was made of a big white fabric. There were some tiny holes on the fabric so when they projected the films onto the screen, some parts of images disappeared. We were all okay with the low quality of the images, but what made us really upset was when the power was out and we had to stay in the dark for a while. Most of the time the electricity came back in around 20 minutes, so we were able to continue to watch the movie. I did not know how the theater got the power back when the entire city was in the dark. Sometimes we had to wait for over one hour. People would scream and shout in the dark. It was really messy and chaotic.
My favorite North Korean movie is Nation and Destiny “Yong Ja Hong” (민족과 운명- 홍영자편). Nation and Destiny is a name of North Korean movie project, directed by Kim Jong Il in 1992. He decided to make a hundred films under this project series. “Yong Ja Hong” was the 11th film. This movie was about the former South Korean President Jong Hee Park’s regime. In this movie, Yong Ja Hong was a the president’s deeply trusted lover and staff member. She was really loyal to the president; she would do whatever he ordered to do, even murder her co-workers.
I think the purpose of this movie was to show President Jong Hee Park’s brutality and his regime’s corruption. The reason I remember this movie most is not because of its purpose, but because of the female actress, Mi Lan Oh. She was incredibly beautiful. She did not look like a typical North Korean woman. She was really tall and had big, beautiful, brown eyes. She used to be the most popular actress in North Korea. When she died of breast cancer, my mother was so sad. In the movie, she also wore really trendy blouses and skirts, which I had never seen in my real life. Her acting skills were so amazing that my father cried every time he watched it. His favorite scene was when Yong Ja Hong tried to drink the poisoned water to kill herself after the death of President Park. She looked so hopeless, but really calm and peaceful. I was only seven or eight years old, but somehow I could understand how depressed she was. Perhaps I was influenced by my father’s tears.
I have no idea if my father would like to watch Sci-Fi movies – there are so many this summer in New York City – since there were none in North Korea. But I would like to share my favorite movies with him, such as The Matrix, Titanic, and Shrek. I am sure he would like to watch Titanic. He probably would cry because he is such a sensitive person. I would also like to take him to the theaters in Seoul, just like he did in North Korea when I was a child. As we are watching movies, we would eat caramel popcorns and dried squid with butter. After the movies, I would talk to him and ask him how and why he liked it. Since we were separated when I was really young, we did not have deep conversations at that time. I do not know much about my father’s thoughts and view of life. Now that I’ve grown up, I really want to get to know him. Sometimes I want to ask him for some advice about my future, how to live my life, what to do after graduating from college. However, he is still in North Korea, where I cannot reach and visit, no matter how desperately I call to him in my dreams.