In 1960s-1980s North Korean mass culture was governed by the concept of North Korea as an already realized “heaven on earth,” with visions of the material prosperity and moral perfection of most citizens. This self-image of the DPRK was close to the concept of communism in Soviet ideology. In the Soviet Union communism was perceived as a reachable but distant ideal, the way to which had to be long and perilous. As a logical outcome of the recognition of imperfection in contemporary Soviet life mass culture always contained an essential dose of heavy social criticism.
North Korean official culture, on the contrary, was constructed on the perception that the social ideal had already been achieved. Yet, North Korean culture was not deterred from depictions of some social problems in the DPRK. Many such problems were discussed in the regular-length feature films. However, apart from these numerous full feature films, there was a special genre in North Korean cinema aimed exclusively at social criticism. Following the Soviet traditional short films genre, which castigated various social evils in satirical form, North Korean cinematography evolved its own genre of short critical films which began with the slogan, “We have to eradicate such things from our life!” and were accompanied by thematic propaganda songs.
The actors involved in the short propaganda films were the same regular film actors and were often even film stars
While the Soviet Union mostly treated the short satirical feature films genre as secondary and Soviet film stars rarely appeared in such movies, it seems that North Korean cinematographers did not discriminate between different genres. The actors involved in the short propaganda films were the same regular film actors and were often even film stars.
In an artistic sense, such films were often not bad. Till the late 1960s North Korean art education followed the Soviet traditional “Stanislavsky system,” the core of which implied that even patent villains had to have their own stories and consistent lines of reasoning. That approach made the “sinners” of North Korean short critical films act in a logical and compelling way.
The feature making these films particularly interesting is a pinch of light humor with an abundance of slapstick elements. This light humor, however, never crosses the border into social satire. It was included in North Korean works of “socialist realism” with the apparent aim of downplaying the significance of the discussed problems and easing the atmosphere.
Understandably enough, North Korean writers and filmmakers tried to present and analyze the social problems in a way that did not compromise the idea of a “socialist paradise”; in the typical mode of the official propaganda, they aimed to redirect the responsibility for such problems to a third party. However, to a critical watcher and reader these works (played, as we remember, by good actors and having compelling storylines) serve as self-exposing documents of the epoch. In particular, these films often demonstrate in minor details many structural and essentially unsolvable problems of the North Korean economy.
One of the central themes in North Korean cinema of the late 1960s-early 1970s was the issue of bad services, shortages and the narrow variety of basic everyday products on the shelves in North Korean shops. To anybody who had experienced living under a socialist economy, with its negligence of the consumer sector, these problems were known all-too-painfully. Take, for example, a popular Soviet joke: “A man is standing in a line of car-buyers. When his turn comes he is informed that he can buy his car in 10 years. “What time exactly?” the happy customer asks. “Does it really matter? It will be in 10 years,” the shop assistant responds. “I know. But sharply at 10 a.m. on that day I will have a repairman coming.”
In search for those responsible for such tedious problems of everyday life the Soviet people tended to scapegoat either the blunders of central planning, or corrupted shop managers who used to distribute the required products among the nearest and dearest or sell these products on the black market for extra price. A degraded shop director and an unskillful accountant/bureaucrat were the popular personages of Soviet TV shows and comedies. While this criticism missed the actual culprit – an inefficient command economy – it still was rather close to understanding the systemic nature of the problem. A thinking Soviet person could, and often did, conclude that both bureaucrats prone to corruption and central planning prone to blunders were the essential products of the faulty economic system. In the last decade of the Soviet system most Soviet citizens seem to have come to such a conclusion; among other factors, this mass recognition assisted in the collapse of communism in most countries of the Eastern Bloc.
North Korean films, on the contrary, never suggested such dangerous scapegoats such as corrupt official or erroneous central planning. Like Caesar’s wife, North Korean system had to be above all suspicions. In North Korean films of social criticism, there was one major culprit – an odd socially immature person who demonstrates lack of enthusiasm and discipline, as the consequences of lack of ideological training. The finales of all such films are similar: An odd sinner deeply regrets his wrongdoings and mends his antisocial ways, immediately restoring social harmony.
RUNNING THE SHOP
Let me introduce, as a good example of such a moralistic tale, a short film titled The Thriving Shop (Pungsonghan Maedae), produced presumably in the late 1960s-early 1970s. The plot of the film can be summarized as follows: The chief engineer of a fishing brigade ignores the demands of his subordinates to mend the fishing nets for catching small seafood, ordering them instead to go to the sea in search of bigger fish in order to fulfill the state plan in a quick and more convenient way.
Meanwhile, the caring mother-in-law of the engineer comes to visit his house. She is determined to prepare the best food for her much-loved son-in-law. Finding out that they are short of the necessary ingredients for side dishes, such as shrimp, anchovies and octopus, the grandma rushes to the closest fish shop. She is puzzled to see that there is a constant shortage of such products in this seaside town’s fishing shop. It takes the grandmother some time to figure out that the local shop is provided by the brigade led by her son-in-law, and that the scarce range of fish there is due to his negligence and desire to fulfill the plan in an easy way.
Meanwhile, the engineer comes to know that he is in trouble. Two visiting cadres from the city are in town and will soon visit the shop, where they intend to buy local seafood products there. The protagonist rushes to the neighboring brigade and vainly pleads with them to sell him some seafood. Anticipating his coming punishment, he comes to the shop only to find happy customers and shop assistants selling a wide variety of seafood and fish. Unable to believe his luck, the hero comes to know that the politically conscientious members of his brigade mended the fishing nets and went to the sea for the seafood without letting him know. The film finishes with a scene of the character’s happy family dinner, with plentiful seafood-based side dishes. A song, calling on people to fulfill the party advice to catch more seafood, emphasizes the didactic meaning of the film.
The authors of the film make it clear that the protagonist who disobeys the order of the party is an isolated figure
The authors of the film make it clear that the protagonist who disobeys the order of the party is an isolated figure and the sin he represents (“selfish” fulfilling of the plan at the cost of a variety of products) is an isolated case. Apart from his single shop, all other local shops are full of the necessary assortment of fish and seafood. Everybody, including his brigade members and colleagues from the other brigades, are determined to follow the party’s orders.
In addition, the protagonist’s behavior is criticized by the people around him, including his wife. The role of the latter is played by the popular North Korean actress Kim Yong Suk, typically cast as a determined, resolute woman. Her character’s criticism of the husband is sharp and uncompromising.
However, for all this politically correct coverage the problem the film discusses is left unresolved, being rooted in an apparent conflict of objective economic interests. Fulfilling the plan of his brigade is the primary charge and responsibility of the engineer; caring for the wider range of products sold in the local shop is beyond his job description. For his brigade, fishing for small fish is disadvantageous; it takes more time and effort which does not pay off.
The authors of the film suggest solving this conflict of interest via additional ideological indoctrination. Under the pressure of community the hero is supposed to dismiss his own interests and put himself in danger to fulfill his charge. Needless to say, such a perspective is highly unlikely.
Overall, though unwittingly, the film presents one of the major problems of the command economy: lack of initiative as the major reason for the narrow range of everyday goods. This theme became a topic of many popular North Korean films of the 1970s-80s. It is enough to mention popular movies such as A Train Waitress (Uri Ryolcha Panmaewon) (1972), Girls of the Port (Pogueui Cheonyeoteul) (1971), A Girl with Many Dreams (Ggumeun Manhi Cheonyeo) (1984), among many others. In all these films, various problems in the North Korean economy are outlined and should be solved by enthusiasts and the intensive ideological education of the community.
For instance, in the film A Train Waitress, young train waitress Suni works hard to improve the quality of her service, trying to organize selling refreshments, grapes and local products in the train. To keep these products the girl organizes the repair of the big station fridge, much to the irritation of her idle boss who is used to using the fridge as a convenient form of storage. The boss tries to ignore Suni’s efforts and commands workers to continue uploading cargo into the not-functioning fridge. In response, Suni covers the door to the fridge with her body and in a howling voice summons the workers to remember the orders of the Great Leader, who has once called train servicemen to take good care of the passengers. The boss is put to shame and virtue triumphs.
Yet, to the 1980s it seems that even official propagandists had started to recognize that the scale of the problems was far too large.
The film A Girl with Many Dreams, screened in 1984, is focused on the issue of bad quality of mass clothes. A female protagonist, an enthusiastic cutter Min Gyong whose role is portrayed by popular actress Pak Keum Sil, strives to solve this problem through a personalized approach for each customer and by developing new, more modern models of dresses. Yet, unlike the odd wrongdoing engineer in the film Thriving Shop, Pak Kum Sil’s heroine seems a solo, solitary superhero. Her immediate supervisors, big solid cadres, are too involved in their immediate work responsibilities and schedules to distract themselves to such trinkets. Min Kyong fails to persuade them; only the accidental interference of a boss of higher position, to whom the girl was able to show her projects, helps her to fulfill her dream of dressing people well.
Unlike the prosperous environment in Thriving Shop where all other shops are filled with available fish, many regular people around the heroine of Pak Kum Sil wear clothes which do not suit them, are of bad quality or are virtually the same.
To the viewers of the film, this picture was just too painfully familiar.
Main image: Still from A Train Waitress
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