If you were expecting a beautiful North Korean Khaleesi brutally slaying imperial Americans or Kim Il Sung climbing to the throne of power like Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, you’ve come to the wrong place. But surprisingly, the storytelling in North Korea’s recent production Bulletproof Wall (Bangtanbyeok) is oddly satisfying and entertaining, despite the presence of a same ol’ Koreans vs. Japanese imperialists plot.
Consisting of seven episodes, North Korea’s popular TV show is now available on DVD. Also, the pro-DPRK Chosun Sinbo newspaper has praised the series for creating something “totally new” in the realm of North Korean drama. According to Tongil News, Bulletproof Wall’s director Um Chang Gol said he had “revolutionized” the process of filming, acting and production.
“We decided to cut out imitation, repetition, similarities to other shows, old and obsolete styles and boring ways of storytelling to create something new,” Um told the Chosun Sinbo. “We experimented with new techniques in filming and editing this film, also we tried to maximize the thrill that many psychodramas and action movies have.”
NK News evaluates his claims in the following.
*Some mild spoilers ahead
Packed with thrills and action, Bulletproof Wall’s plot takes place in 1940s Korea, during the Japanese imperial era. Many previous North Korean stories have been based on this era as it was time when Kim Il Sung rose to power as the leader of the anti-Japanese guerrillas in Manchuria. As Kim Il Sung was often portrayed as a living god in many DPRK films, plays and official history, it was easy to expect the storytelling in this drama to be polluted with ideological brainwashing, praising Kim Il Sung’s (not entirely historical) militaristic genius.
… surprisingly, references to Kim Il Sung’s name and works are minimal throughout the series
But surprisingly, references to Kim Il Sung’s name and works are minimal throughout the series, which greatly helps viewers not get distracted from the main plot of the TV series.
“It is quite unusual that they did not mention Kim Il Sung that much,” said Lee Woo-young, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “But last year Kim Jong Un ordered the improvement in the quality of cultural life in North Korea by modernizing it and allowing a generous spectrum as well. The Moranbong band’s renewal reflects North Koreans’ need for better, more modernized quality in cultural products.”
The plot focuses on a female protagonist and her father, who both work as secret agents for the Chosun People’s Revolutionary Army, the anti-Japanese partisan organization formed by Kim Il Sung. Though Kim is little spoken-of, the omniscient narrator sometimes intervenes in the middle of the scene and explains what Kim Il Sung did during the “real” historical timeline compared to that of the show.
The series revolves around Japanese imperialists and Korean spies fighting a spy war in the shadows. The plot consists of numerous life-threatening crises in which the protagonists are often forced to make difficult decisions to save their spy organization.
Not as bloody or action packed as, say, Spartacus, Bulletproof Wall still contains enough action to entertain the viewer. Due to the budget limits, many action scenes created with CGI may seem rather fake or dull for international viewers already used to Game of Thrones-quality CGI. But the directors’ efforts to make the show eye-opening are vividly displayed throughout the series.
Bulletproof Wall’s characters are rather dull, as protagonists remain good, while antagonists remain bad or get worse until the end. For example, all of the Japanese military are portrayed as purely evil, while the North Korean fighters are all depicted as brave and focused. Also, the fun of guessing who is going to betray is gone, as the omniscient narrator often intervenes and explains what is going to happen, making the whole psychological thriller element of the series quite tedious.
Also, unlike many of today’s Western TV series, this series lacks sex scenes, romance between characters or even kissing. The relatively attractive female protagonist has no love interests throughout the series, which helps the viewers keep the track of its main plot, but at the same time makes protagonists look like little more than heartless machinery for the socialist revolution.
Still, it’s quite entertaining to watch how protagonists improvised with pre-WWII-era spy gadgets or weapons to eavesdrop on Japanese military communications, film their activities or counter-spy on the Japanese unit. It isn’t as fancy as the tools from the 007 series, but the use of pre-WWII spying gadgets added to the historical immersion of the series.
Often, Japanese imperialists are shot from low angles to emphasize the brutality of their war crimes committed against Koreans
Despite the dull portrayals of the main characters, the camera work is all above average or better. The scenes switch at an extremely fast pace, helping the viewers keep their attention throughout the series. Also, camera angles change from the ground level to the wide scenery. Often, Japanese imperialists are shot from low angles to emphasize the brutality of their war crimes committed against Koreans. This effort shows that the director actually poured effort into proper filming to send a clear message to viewers.
Unfortunately, many of the props used in the series are historically inaccurate. According to Kim Min Seok, senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, all of the weapons in the series were products made in Russia.
“That is Antonov An-2, the Soviet mass-produced plane,” Kim said of one piece of equipment. “There is no way that Japanese imperialists would have used Soviet-based machinery, so my guess is that they used actual DPRK military planes to cut the expense on props.”
John Grisafi, military expert with NK News, had a similar opinion. “If North Korea does have any authentic Japanese military equipment from the era, they are likely museum pieces. The producers likely needed to settle for whatever equipment they had which was okay to use and looked close enough to what would be right.”
Despite some historical inaccuracies and dull characterizations, the series is filled with action and interesting pre-WWII spy warfare. Use of CGI is poor, but the fantastic camera work showed the directors’ efforts to make the series hold up to the international standard. Yet the director’s claim that this series is something “totally new” is not hold borne out.
For one thing, Bulletproof Wall only adapts improved techniques to the same old DPRK vs Japanese imperialist plot that has been repeated many times before. Second, despite the effort to minimize Kim Il Sung’s presence, the main theme of the TV series is to be loyal to one’s country and become a “bulletproof wall” for Kim Il Sung. Third, the plot is too obvious for viewers, who can easily predict that good will triumph over evil, no matter how disadvantaged the protagonists are.
“Despite the presence of Kim Il Sung, it is clear that North Korea’s culture is becoming more ‘modernized’” said Lee Woo-young of the University of North Korean Studies. “Many North Koreans are exposed to foreign media and the country is slowly changing to reach the higher need of North Korean people.”
All images: Bulletproof Wall screen captures
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