North Korean cinematography does not have a tradition of horror films. Adventures involving vampires and zombies do not properly fit into the tradition of socialist realism, which is expected to be sunny and optimistic. Yet in my view, the atmosphere in some North Korean films is indeed scary – though it is not always the intention of its authors.
When I discovered a short film “Trust the metal scrap to me”, produced in the 1970s, I delved into it expecting to experience some nostalgic pleasures.
Like any person brought up in the Soviet Union, I spent some time in my elementary school years collecting metal scrap, which was later recycled. In the huge industrial city of Siberia where I grew up, abandoned metal could be found here and there, and children were mobilized to collect precious waste while cleaning streets and parks.
To me and my friends, searching for the pieces of rusty iron, digging it out of soil and snow, and then carrying to school with sleighs was great fun. The job was organized as a competition between different classes, and this added an extra spark to our play.
Many ex-Soviet children remember moments when, in order to assure the victory of their teams, some little iron-diggers stole their mothers’ favorite pans or snuck onto the land of top-secret military plants.
In North Korea, however, collecting abandoned metal is not a child’s play – at least according to “Trust the metal scrap to me”. This is a deadly serious enterprise, and anyone who misses this will be penalized immediately.
WHERE IS YOUR METAL, COMRADE?
The film begins in the morning with a brigade leader hurriedly on his way to the factory. In the front yard of his apartment, the protagonist is stopped by an old lady, a leader of a neighborhood community who, along with other housewives, is sorting through pieces of rusty iron.
The woman asks the brigade leader why his household is lagging behind other families in collecting metal scrap and dodging the nation-wide task set by the Party. The protagonist nonchalantly promises that he will participate in the collection later in the evening, after coming home from the factory.
In North Korea, however, collecting abandoned metal is not a child’s play
The next person who confronts the brigade leader about his failure to collect metal scrap is his own son – of elementary school age. The man repeats his promise with a tint of irritation. The boy informs his father that his class is also involved in this project and asks his father if he could provide them with a truck from the factory so that the children could deliver their loot to school. The father makes another irritated, and non-committal, promise.
When the man finally arrives at the factory, he dives into his numerous job responsibilities. He distributes daily chores among the brigade members, he makes telephone calls to the allied brigade urging them to deliver missing the auxiliary parts as soon as possible because, otherwise, his brigade cannot continue some operations; he approaches his machines and starts to work… yet an impatient call from the boss interrupts the sweaty man: he is told to delay everything and join a special meeting about collecting metal scrap. The brigade leader shrugs and sends his assistant instead.
The assistant comes to the meeting only to learn that every brigade has to collect ten tons of metal scrap, and their brigade has not even started their collection! Meanwhile the Party calls on the workers to collect the metal before and after work hours, and, of course, during their lunch breaks. The brigade leader has to come by himself and solve the problem.
Only then does it strike him that he is in trouble. The protagonist postpones all his work and rushes to search for the metal scrap. He desperately searches near and far, placing himself in a series of amusing situations. But most of the abandoned metal has been already picked up by other brigades or neighborhood communities, or even by groups of schoolchildren in his son’s class.
Our exhausted and despondent protagonist stops in an empty wasteland to have a cigarette, and, finally, a ray of hope appears: he spots a huge piece of solid metal slab unnoticed by previous diggers. The metal lump seems to be heavy enough to equal 10 tons.
The protagonist, the only mentally healthy person, is surrounded by maniacs obsessed with metal scrap
The hero, now relaxed, rushes back to his boss and reassures him that the quota will be met. Meanwhile, he calls for a lifting crane to dig the heavy slab out – only to find out that what seemed to be a heavy metal slab is really a light rusty plate. The quota is not met; the brigade leader is disgraced and laughed at for his overconfidence.
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE
Though the film is apparently intended as a light social comedy, aimed at irresponsible and boastful workers, to a non-North Korean viewer it’s almost nightmarish.
The protagonist, the only mentally normal person, is surrounded by maniacs obsessed with metal scrap. These obsessives, who pretend to be his relatives, colleagues, and friends, don’t allow him to work or eat or rest until he brings them ten tons of rusty metal.
In a society operated by common logic, the collectors of excessive scrap metal will be rewarded materially or morally, and the non–collectors go without such a reward.
Unfortunately, the film portrays another type of society: a society of total mobilization and dominated by a command economy. In such a society, collecting metal waste is managed through fixed universal plans, and these plans are like military orders. To survive, you have to find 10 tons of the metal scrap. Period.
The film shows the tensions which the necessity to collect metal scrap no-matter-what way unavoidably creates. When the protagonist sees happy faces of the children who managed to get into a wasteland before him, he experiences not a warm fatherly feeling, but a green-eyed envy against his young competitors.
In his desperate search for the non-existing scrap, the character even tries to steal already collected scrap belonging to a female brigade and is fought away.
All these collisions may look funny if one disregards the grave implications which the failure to fulfill the norm has for the character.
To survive, you have to find 10 tons of the metal scrap. Period.
In her memoirs, Elena Berman, a literary translator who lived in Pyongyang in the 1950s recollects an absurd episode: a fight between two neighboring professors over a dead fly.
In the North Korea of the 1950s, flies posed a health hazard, and a nation-wide campaign was set to eradicate these pests. Like any North Korean campaign, the anti-fly crusade demanded that every household collect a particular amount of dead flies. The campaign was successful. In no time, the amount of flies in Pyongyang radically dwindled.
Elena commented on the episode as follows: “Two respected people armed with swatters started a fight near a dustbin over a dead fly, arguing who was the first to kill it. Nobody laughed at them. I am not sure if I have enough talent to write a story about this fight, both tragic and scary.”
All photos clips from “Trust the metal scrap to me”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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