In the history of North Korean cinema, there is one film whose effect on the audience far surpassed the expectations of its creators. This is Hong Gil-dong (1986), a cinematic version of the legendary folklore story about adventures of the Korean Robin Hood. The authorship of Tale of Hong Gil-dong is ascribed to Hô Gyun, a prominent Korean intellectual (1569-1618). Hong Gil-dong, the film based on this tale, can be called a debut for the distinguished North Korean scenario writer Kim Se Ryun. In previous North Korean cinematography, Kim had acquired popularity as a scenarist of light didactic comedies about the minor shortcomings of socialist Korea, such as Hello (Annyeong Haseo, 1979). Hong Gil-dong was the first movie of Kim Se Ryun’s, and was based on historical and folkloristic motifs, and the debut was a definite success. The film is dynamic, entertaining and contained minimal of propaganda messages, and all this has turned Hong Gil-dong into a symbol of the changes North Korean mass culture experienced in the 1980s.
Hong Gil-dong was among the North Korean works of cinematography which – after many long years of abandoning Korean traditional themes and focusing exclusively on the promotion of Kim Il Sung – resorted again to Korean folklore. Yet there was a significant difference in their approach to the classics, which North Korean intellectuals demonstrated in the 1980s and in the earlier period of North Korean culture.
1950-1960s: REWRITTEN CLASSICS
Traditional content in these works was intermingled with strict ideological messages, often to the extent of completely changing the original storylines
In the 1950s-early 1960s, North Korean culture occasionally utilized traditional and folklore motifs.
Among such works was the film The Story of Chunghyang (1959), written by the famous North Korean writer Kim Song Gu, and Han Sôrya’s novel The Fairy of Kumgansan (1961). Traditional content in these works was intermingled with strict ideological messages, often to the extent of completely changing the original storylines.
In his diary written in 1963-1964, North Korean play writer Sô Man Il complained about a modernized opera The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd, which a local theater in Wonsan intended to stage. Sô was asked to participate in the editing of the libretto of the opera and was stunned to find that the proposed new version of the old tale had completely altered the original story about the separated newlyweds, the titular cowherd and weaver girl. In the original, the Lord of Heaven punished the infatuated lovers for their neglect of their work responsibilities, and placed them on opposite sides of the Milky Way. Only once a year, on the seventh day and seventh lunar month, the newlyweds were able to meet due to the mercy of magpies, which would form a bridge for them. Following the conventions of socialist realism, which favored positive endings and the motif of revolt by the heroes against older authorities and exploiters, the political supervisors of the opera tried to force an author of the libretto, Pak Ha Yeon, to make the lovers rebel against the decision of heaven, leave the sky and move to the earth. Otherwise, they claimed, “the story had no educational value.”
Being a devoted communist and a disciplined member of the Writer’s Union, Sô nevertheless expresses his hesitations in the diary: “From an aesthetic and ethical point of view, this is a difficult question. I think it may make sense to return to the original, traditional libretto. The tragic ending does not hinder the major message – longing for freedom, which the shepherd and the weaver had. On the other hand, rewriting classics is not necessarily a bad thing. It makes a classic story more positive and fills it with revolutionary optimism … I do not know. Maybe it is more efficient to influence people’s ideology and feelings with more serious, traditional content?”
Han Sôrya, who in 1960-1961 rewrote the old Korean story Fairy of Kumgansan into a Juche pamphlet, did not have such qualms. In the original version of the tale, a poor woodcutter commits a crime, stealing the wings of a beautiful fairy and thus forcing her to stay on the earth and become his wife. The woodcutter was warned not to show the stolen wings to his wife before she would have given birth to four children. Yet, after the fairy gave birth to their third child, the naïve human relaxed, conceded to her naggings and showed her the wings. The fairy immediately put on the wings and flew back to the sky carrying one child on her back and the other two under her arms. The inconsolable woodcutter stayed on earth.
Han Sôrya conventionally skipped the admonitions of the story, such as “Do not trust women,” “Do not try to cheat fate and jump over the social ladder,” “Do not marry a person far above your social status” and so forth. Instead, he wrote a story of a revolutionary fairy who enthusiastically worked shoulder to shoulder with her peasant husband toward their common goal – “to make the earth as beautiful as a sky land.” The fairy helps her husband plant rice, “the king of grains” (a popular formula of Kim Il Sung’s in the 1960s) and fight the Japanese pirates. The revised story is permeated with the Juche mantras, such as “we are the masters of the universe,” “labor makes a hero” and “we have to rely on our own strengths.”
Unfortunately for Han, this servile mutilation of the old tale did not help him – like Sô Man Il, he was purged soon after the book was published.
After 1967, even such aborted folklore in North Korean culture was discouraged. The omnipresent cult of Kim Il Sung pushed aside any themes which had no immediate relations to the Leader. Any narrations of the past were unavoidably connected to the anti-Japanese struggle of Kim Il Sung, so that a consumer of North Korean culture was left with an impression that life in Korea had begun with the Great Leader.
THE 1980s: REEMERGENCE OF FOLKLORE
The only inescapable lines in these new films and literary texts were the motifs of struggle of the heroes against the foreign invaders … as well as the idea of unification of the Korean people
In the 1980s, North Korean culture experienced a period of unheralded liberalization. One of the manifestations of this liberalization was a restoration of folklore and classic novels to their previous positions. Yet, unlike their predecessors, the rewritten classics in the 1950s-1960s, classic tales in North Korean culture of the 1980s underwent few ideological revisions. The only inescapable lines in these new films and literary texts were the motifs of struggle of the heroes against the foreign invaders, presumably the Japanese, as well as the idea of unification of the Korean people in the face of these foreign invaders. Typical for the historical works of socialist realism, these North Korean texts and films exaggerated the role of the masses. A protagonist, no matter how great a military genius he is, gets his victory only after he calls for mobilization of the common people.
Hong Gil-dong was the first North Korean action film, which employed martial arts of the Hong Kong style, with the characters flying in the air and jumping over the top of the trees due to meticulous practice and wise guidance of an old teacher. The role of the jumpy protagonist was played by a young handsome actor Ri Yông Ho, a returnee from Japan and a future sex symbol of North Korean cinematography. For Ri, this film was a debut.
Ri Yông Ho probably never knew that by his role Hong Gil-dong he had paid a special service to his compatriots in the Soviet Union, where the film was demonstrated. Attractive Asian faces were rare on Soviet screen, and hundreds of young Soviet Koreans met Ri Yông Ho’s Hong Gil-dong as a long-awaited role model; his cool hero won to them hearts of many Soviet girlfriends. Excited views of Korean mountain landscapes in Hong Gil-dong, bright national costumes, exotic ancient rituals, and the pretty faces of the actors made Soviet Koreans feel proud of their historical motherland; before that, Korea in their minds was associated exclusively with the poorly edited journal Korea and a weird cult of personality.
To the North Korean audience, Hong Gil-dong also provided important food for thought.
In 1986 North Korean cinematography was enriched, along with Hong Gil-dong, by another film based on classic novel: The Story of Ondal, a Korean version of Beauty and the Beast. This tale concerns the young beggar Ondal who by the twist of fate marries a beautiful princess and turns into a heroic Koguryo general under the benevolent influence of his devoted, educated wife.
The Story of Ondal enjoyed a degree of success. The film was filled with the touching motifs of Ondal’s care for his sick mother, his devotion to his homeland and scenes of romance and animated battles, which were rare treats for the North Korean audience of the 1980s. Yet, for all its excitement, The Story of Ondal was an ideologically convenient tale of social mobility, which teaches that proper education and devotion drives a person to the top of society. The story followed a safe pattern of presentation of Korea as a place of harmony where marriages between beggars and princesses occasionally occur and bring perfect social results. This idealistic presentation of the past was in accordance with the idealized presentation of Juche North Korea’s present, where a person allegedly occupies a place in society that is deserved due to his efforts and virtues.
By contrast, The Tale of Hong Gil-dong was an ideologically dubious story. The motif of the protagonist robbing the rich and protecting the poor allowed earlier North Korean critics to claim that Hong Gil-dong was an alleged “rebel against the feudal system” – a typical example of such an approach can be found in a book by Kim Ha Myông, The Classic Literature of Our Country, published in Pyongyang in 1959. However, the other messages of the tale contradict this conventional claim of North Korean propaganda, and the film based on the classic novel fully demonstrated this.
The very king himself claims that he is not able to help Hong because the inequality of different classes is the pillar of society
The central message of the film is that Hong Gil-dong belongs to the despised strata of Korean society, being the son of a noble man and a lower-class concubine. Unlike The Story of Ondal, in which the protagonist rises to the top due to his own efforts, neither Hong’s exemplary noble behavior, nor the interference of his noble father and half-brother, nor the personal exploits of Hong Gil-dong, such as his victory over the “black pirates” (Japanese ninja) were able to change his status and let him marry his sweetheart, the daughter of the minister. The very king himself claims that he is not able to help Hong because the inequality of different classes is the pillar of society, without which the kingdom would collapse.
Listening to this final verdict, the fearless hero withers. Instead of revolting against the king, he leaves the country in search for some happy, harmonious place where people are treated according to their own merits. The narrator makes it clear, however, that Hong Gil-dong’s chances to find such a place were low.
In North Korean society, based on the caste-like system of Sôngbun, which divided all people into reliable and unreliable classes, this message was rather sensitive. Too many North Koreans could associate themselves with the hero, who was smart, educated and noble and yet could move nowhere due to the fact that, for instance, they descended from landlords or their grandfather was a returnee from Japan.
Hong Gil-dong openly claimed this situation to be unjust. Yet, like many other films in the late 1980s-early 1990s, which touched dangerous social topics, it posed the question but did not provide any answers. The watchers would leave the theater, filled with beautiful music and a vision of the handsome hero who sales away from his country, from his father and loving half-brother, toward some unknown lands. The hero is sad. Yet, he is not alone in his boat, surrounded by his loving mother, his loyal girlfriend and his devoted battle comrades with their wives and girlfriends. All they have chosen to follow Hong Gil-dong on his way to the unknown.
This vision must surely serve as consolation to North Koreans who, like Hong Gil-dong, could rely on their families and friends in their constant war with the unfair world.
All images: Screenshots from Hong Gil-dong
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