The last decade of Kim Jong Il’s rule brought many changes to North Korean mass culture, the most significant of which was the introduction of a new type of TV serials.
Unlike the serials of the past such as “Star of Korea” (1980-1987) or “Nation and Destiny” (1992-2002), which consisted of several films only loosely connected to each-other, the serials of the 2000s were closer to classic TV dramas, in which one story unfolds over many episodes.
The new TV dramas were a real breakthrough. The previous favorites of the North Korean cultural scene, regular feature films, had restricted filmmakers in many senses: they often had to squeeze all the intricacies of the plot and the necessary political declarations within an hour and twenty minutes.
For scenario-writers like Ri Chung Gu, with his love of slow-paced plot development, lengthy flashbacks, and beautiful scenery, this was surely not enough time.
TV serials solved this problem. Their length, which varied between four and 15 episodes, allowed filmmakers to adapt popular lengthy novels without losing subplots, minor characters, and psychological details.
The bold-line, clear-cut plots of previous North Korean films, as a result, obtained greater depth, became more complex and could be enriched with intrigue and additional color.
The length of the serials allowed for more persuasive character development
The new TV serials also allowed the wider use of comic actors, whose minor characters spiced up the plot development. A typical actor of this new era of TV series was Seok Seong Je: a funny looking, country-bumpkin fellow, with lively movements and rich facial expressions.
Seok played perfect supporting roles in the serials like “Our Neighbors” (2013), “Steel Belief” (2009), “The Place Where Cuckoo-bird Sings” (2009), “Flames” (2008), etc.
Even more importantly, the length of the serials allowed for more persuasive character development, which has always been a luxury on the North Korean screen.
This is particularly relevant when it comes to romance. North Korean culture does not have a special genre of film devoted to romance: lovers are typically involved in a number of socially important projects which outshine their love. Romance on North Korean screen, usually, is a schematic, quick, and predictable side story.
The new lengthy TV serials, however, began to show romance in more details and intricacies. And, in some cases, artistic imagination seem to drive the scenario-writer too far away from the original plot.
Typical in this regard is the seven-episode TV serial “Flames” (2008) in which romantic storyline seems to get a little out of control.
INTENDED POLITICAL MESSAGES
The political messages which “Flames” intended to deliver were quite unadventurous and a throwback to those often propagated in the 1990s.
The conventional theme of self-reliance, or “charyeok kaengsaeng,” combined calls for the makeshift invention of import-substitute technologies “on the spot” and home-brewed mass education, which must be acquired not through formal study, but through the students’ own strengths.
Similarly unadventurous is the theme of humble “honorable veterans,” whose past exploits should be gratified by every member of society, and of the adoption of children whose parents died during the famine.
The protagonist, a young technician named Cheol Yeong (played by Hyon Jeong Hun) with no formal diploma, selflessly works on a new factory boiler after a long chain of torment and misfortune.
The serial presents one of the most unusual love lines ever seen on the North Korean screen
Cheol Yoeng independently masters foreign languages and infects the whole factory with his zest for education. The serial’s thematic song “Let’s study” summarizes this message (the song is now a hit in the repertoire of the Moranbong Band).
Though an old bachelor, Cheol Yeong has adopted an orphan boy: his nephew, the son of his dead sister Hyeon Sim (played by the popular actress Ri Hei Yeong). Hyeon Sim was an honorable veteran wounded while serving in the army, but despite her injury, continued to work during the Arduous March and died because of overstress.
ROMANCE: CONVENTIONAL SETUP
Typical for North Korean industrial dramas, this professional line mingles with the romance which develops between the enthusiastic inventor and factory director Cheong Ok (played Chu Gum Hyang).
The director at first doubts Cheol Yong’s ability to solve the problem. However, his enthusiasm turns her into his greatest supporter. And though he is a socially clumsy man with no formal education, while she is a beautiful woman with a good education and a high social status, her professional sympathy grows into love.
Here the serial reproduces a favorite convention of North Korean romance, in which the perfect moral and political qualities of a mediocre-looking man of lower status impress a girl of higher status and better appearance.
Classic examples of this pattern take place in “A young man whom I like” (1987) which presents the romance between a sewage cleaner and a pretty clothes designer, or “City girl marries a village fellow” (1992) in which, again, a city-dwelling clothes designer is attracted to a humble peasant.
The most radical form of such mésalliance present films about disabled veterans who are proposed to by healthy and pretty girls out of sheer appreciation of their high moral qualities.
Despite this conventional beginning “Flames,” however, does not fit into the predictable pattern of lovers marrying and living happily ever after.
Instead, the serial presents one of the most unusual love lines ever seen on the North Korean screen, filled with previously- unthinkable themes of unrequited love, obsession with a biological sister, and female-on-male harassment.
CHU GUM HYANG, THE COLD BEAUTY
The female star of the serial, Chu Gum Hyang, began to appear in North Korean cinema in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Chu’s image notably differs from the standards of North Korean positive female characters, who in addition to their pretty features tend to have friendly and warm personalities.
Chu, in contrast, is the snow queen of the North Korean screen: beautiful but rarely smiling, always slightly detached from what is going on around.
While North Korean cinematographers seem to appreciate Chu’s attractiveness, previous films generally avoided overemphasizing her ‘snowy’ qualities.
Though Chu’s heroine is a beautiful figure skater of international acclaim, she quickly reciprocates the feelings of the fellow who, in compensation for his mediocre looks and lower social status, has a noble professional ambition: he strives to accomplish the dream of the Great Leader to feed every North Korean with delicious cold noodles.
In “Our Warm House” (2004-2005) set in the Pyongyang maternity hospital, Chu’s heroine becomes romantically involved with her obstetrician colleague.
Again, the man is of a slightly lower social status – unlike Chu’s character, with her reserved manners and stylish clothes, he focuses his career on modest, practical work.
Nevertheless, his devotion to caring for the new mothers and their babies melt the heart of the snowy beauty quickly; they marry and have a baby of their own.
In “Flames,” however, Chu plays a rather unorthodox heroine.
THE GIRL THAT BUMPS MEN’S HEADS
This author has already written about the change in gender patterns that took place on the North Korean screen in the 1990s, when, under the influence of “military-first” ideology, the traditionally respectful and soft attitude toward women was replaced by an extremely rude one.
The serial “Taehongdan Party Secretary” (1999-2000) contains an unusual lovers squabble: a young man, frustrated by his girlfriend’s innocent joke, virtually throws her out of his car into the snow and abandons her in the middle of nowhere.
In post-Arduous March cinema, gender relations largely returned to normalcy and such episodes disappeared. “Flames,” however, takes us back to the Songun style, albeit with the gender roles reversed.
At the beginning of the serial Cheol Yeong walks to work for the first time and on the road hitches a coming truck for a ride. He is astonished to see that the driver is a pretty young woman: in North Korea, driving is generally considered both too hard and too privileged for the “weaker sex.”
A romance beginning with a misunderstanding between future lovers is a favorite pattern of North Korean film
The character gets into the truck and begins a relaxed chat with the driver, too excited to notice that the girl does not get involved into the conversation.
Bothered by the talkativeness of her passenger, the female driver then does exactly what we see in the film “Taehongdan Party Secretary”: she roughly stops the truck so the man bumps his head in the front window, opens the door, and throws the chatterer out.
After eventual getting to the factory, our shocked hero finds out that the frump who threw him out of the truck is Cheong Ok, the factory director.
All further attempts by the hero to establish good relations with the director fails. He makes one clumsy error after the other, irritating her even more.
A romance beginning with a misunderstanding between future lovers is a favorite pattern of North Korean film, but what makes “Flames” unconventional is the personality of the heroine. Cheong Ok is an uncompromising dominatrix: ambitious, coldly pretty, and ruling her subordinates with a firm hand.
Even romance fails to soften her character. When after a while Cheong Ok understands that behind the socially clumsy appearance of this old bachelor there is a talented engineer and a handsome man she decides not to lose any more time and forces her way into his life with the dynamism of a Sherman tank.
She begins to organize Cheol Yeong’s life according to her own ideas about what he needs. She makes friends with Cheol Yeong’s adopted son by pampering him, teaching him computer games, and spoiling his teeth with candies. Behind his back, she arranges to move his family to the factory village.
Eventually, the director publicly confesses her feelings for Cheol Yeong, making the listeners utterly uncomfortable. When rumors about it reach Cheol Yeong he rushes to meet with her. Yet, his colleague Seok Keun, played by the above-mentioned Seok Seong Je, persuades him to stop his resistance:
-You are an idiot! She is a wonderful woman, what else do you wish for?
-But I hate women like her! I am going to tell her this!
-You are a fool! Do not you know our director? It is simply too late. If she decides something, she won’t let it go.
When Cheol Yeong overstresses his eyes and temporarily loses his eyesight, the first thing he discovers after regaining consciousness following surgery is the director sitting near his bedside — unavoidable as doom.
She informs him that she has decided everything already and wants to be the mother of his child. Alone, blind, with bandages on his face, the protagonist makes a desperate attempt to free himself but realizes that her will is too strong.
Cheol Yeong, in turn, is far from being a conventional lover, and the authors make it clear that some personal trauma prevents the hero from jumping into new relations.
This turns out not to be loyalty to a deceased partner or a fiancé (a popular motif reflecting the reality of mass death during the Arduous March), but the fact he is still grieving for his deceased biological sister Hyeon Sim, the mother of his adopted child.
Cheol Yeong is haunted by constant memories about Hyeon Sim — all oddly romantic. One episode reproduces the classic atmosphere of North Korean romance, with Cheol Yeong seating with his sister at a bonfire at night, playing guitar, and lovingly listening to her singing.
Cheol Yeong, in turn, is far from being a conventional lover
The playful looks they exchange, the affectionate ways with which Cheol Yeong covers her shoulders with his coat or shares a piece of roasted potato, are far too intimate for regular brotherly-sisterly relationships.
The hero’s past holds another unconventional secret – the story of his suffering and overcoming of alcoholism, which once prevented him from entering university. Due to Hyeon Sim’s efforts, he was able to overcome this addiction.
Before this, the motif of personal indulgence and addiction had been largely absent in North Korean mass culture. North Korean characters are, typically, presented with obstacles like military service or job commitments.
Even more radical is the serial’s open and ambigious ending — in stark contrast with the precise conclusions of regular North Korean films.
The political line of the film develops in a quite typical way: the newly designed boiler proves to work, and Cheol Yeong receives an honorary doctorate from the hands of the Great Leader and other accompanied awards. The romantic line, however, remains incomplete.
Im the final scene, we come to learn that Cheol Ok has received a promotion in another city and, before moving to her new workplace, gives Cheol Yeong a final ride to the factory on her truck.
He reluctantly takes a seat, they drive silently, and when he gets out, Cheol Ok issues a promise in a voice akin to a thriller maniac: “I will write you.”
Viewers are left in the dark about what happens next, but it seems that the wisest next step for Cheol Yeong would be to brush up on his English and join the #metoo movement.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Youtube screencapture
The last decade of Kim Jong Il's rule brought many changes to North Korean mass culture, the most significant of which was the introduction of a new type of TV serials.Unlike the serials of the past such as "Star of Korea" (1980-1987) or "Nation and Destiny" (1992-2002), which consisted of several films only loosely connected to each-other, the serials of the 2000s were closer to classic TV
About the Author
Tatiana Gabroussenko obtained her PhD in East Asian Studies at the Australian National University. She is currently a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University, Seoul. Her latest book Soldiers on the Cultural Front: Developments in the early history of North Korean literature and literary policy, was included in the Choice magazine list of Outstanding Academic Titles of 2012.