North Korean films are underrated. Of course, there is a lot of propaganda, and yes, plenty of far-fetched storylines. But some of them are genuinely funny, and many reveal a lot about how the country was supposed to work – and how it actually did.
One real gem is “Our Family’s Problem” (우리 집 문제; viewable here), an old black-and-white classic from 1973. It’s about how the head of a local post office, entrusted with the vital task of delivering newspapers, gradually gets corrupted by his wife, who is eager for the good life and lacking in revolutionary consciousness.
This might sound like a risible tragedy in the North Korean context, but it is a farce in which the system wins but the cadre himself and his wife are also taught a valuable lesson: don’t let your family steal your heart and mind from the revolution.
The family at the center of the film live in a modern apartment block in Pyongyang, hardly an average family by North Korea standards, then or now.
The main characters are a family of four. The husband is a naive, guileless and diligent worker who seeks to uphold the Party line, bringing the news to the people so that they are inspired to greater feats of labor achievement. His wife is an acquisitive, sarcastic and cunning woman who is more concerned with the comfort of her family than the success of the People’s Korea.
This aspiring Jezebel is not the first character you might expect to find in a North Korean film, but the wife in the film certainly does not shy away from committing ideological sins.
She borrows money from an acquaintance who works in the state retail industry and is supplied with luxuries like nice clothes. It seems – at least, it is heavily implied – that her acquaintance has stolen this stuff, or at least allowed certain customers preferential access to hard-to-find merchandise.
Later in the film, the same acquaintance supplies her with a watch for the husband, on the understanding that she will get a transfer to a job in her husband’s office.
The wife in the film certainly does not shy away from committing ideological sins
All this eventually will lead to the downfall of our main character, but it’s interesting for several reasons. First, it implies that there was probably quite a bit of corruption in the state retail sector. For a film released in Kim Il Sung’s North Korea to feature a woman who makes off with goods under her care and uses them to get ahead is really quite something.
Next, without meaning to get too much into the weeds, in the Kim Il Sung era, people could not choose their jobs, they were assigned them on the basis of their family and social background (Songbun), as well as their skills.
Yet, it seems that a low-level bureaucrat can change his own staff, so perhaps it was easier to switch jobs than is sometimes believed.
It’s also amusing to watch the husband being gradually, and then rapidly, corrupted by his wife’s acquisitiveness. Yet, it’s also telling that it is the wife who wants her family to have nice things, like phones, rugs, and good clothes, while her husband is initially committed to the revolution and wants his wife to be frugal.
At about the half-way stage, it’s as if a switch is flicked in the man’s head and he suddenly is no different than his wife, except for his guilelessness.
Unlike his wife, he is no good at playing games and getting what he wants through subtle manipulation. Instead, he orders one of his lowly subordinates to write up the content of an after-work Party session he slept through for a test he has coming a couple of days later (he fails and is laughed out of the class).
He has another subordinate take his wife off into the countryside in search of cash to pay off their debts to this untrustworthy acquaintance.
It’s almost as if he has lost his mind: what comes next is what the Party wants every cadre to know will come for them if they do not imbibe and reflect the Party line in their behavior.
The main characters are presented as both charming and stupid
In North Korea, the system of mutual and self-criticism is not a state secret, in fact, it is not only present in the country’s encyclopedia, the Great and Dear Leaders were happy to talk about it on the record, and it is very much present in North Korean films.
Cadres are criticised ruthlessly for their lack of commitment to the Party line, their haughty attitude to subordinates, and their selfish careerist desire for promotion, fame, and fortune.
Our male protagonist is no exception. His subordinates rise in turn to denounce his crimes and the Party secretary, and older, short, bespectacled and rather lanky fellow also talks of the man’s corruption and the role of his wife in the sordid affair. He promptly loses his job and that’s pretty much how the film ends.
The film is a farce, and the main characters are presented as both charming and stupid, at times cunning, but also lacking the wits necessary to get away with behaving the way they do. The message is clear, and ideology is ever present, yet the film is still entertaining.
And amusingly, and I suspect this was an intentional joke, in subsequent films the male lead never seems to acquire a name, and is always called “Comrade Post Office Manager” or “you.”
It’s also telling that it is the wife who wants her family to have nice things
Not all North Korean films are just paeans to the leaders, and the leaders are not mentioned at all throughout the entire movie.
Aside from slogans that adorn many a wall in official buildings that appear in the periphery of many a shot (but are not legible), you’d almost be forgiven for thinking that this wasn’t a time when Kim Il Sung’s cult was all over the press and his word was the last on every political issue.
In its own way, the film is also a fascinating portrait of cadre life in the 1970s. The lead characters would probably occupy too low a social position to actually live so comfortably in real life, but still, the film offers you many hints of what a luxury apartment for the top 1% in Pyongyang in 1973 might have looked like: the size of the rooms, the style, how they might cook, and what they might aspire to eat.
The film ends with our main character out of a job, and the moral of the story is that we must revolutionize our households. In other words, do not let private matters get in the way of our work and upholding the Party line.
No surprise on this point, but it appears as if his crimes are not so bad as to preclude him staying in Pyongyang and appearing in subsequent films of the same series. Indeed, in subsequent films, he and his wife are no longer the villains, but the good guys who solve the family problems of other relatives or neighbors.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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