Across the socialist world, joint cultural projects between Cold War allies were common. The aim of these projects was to facilitate cultural exchange and build comradely friendship, but, in reality, they never really went smoothly.
Despite all the rhetoric, which emphasized the similarity of cultural and ideological positions within the Soviet bloc, each nations’ actual approaches to particular issues varied from country to country.
Disagreements occurred even in cases when projects were devoted to seemingly neutral or non-controversial themes. A joint Yugoslavian-Soviet film about anti-fascist resistance, an East German performance of classical ballet in Moscow, or a Soviet version of a classical Hungarian operetta often revealed the actual political and cultural incongruences between the allies.
North Korea and the USSR have their own history of joint cultural projects, some of which enjoyed limited success.
But the most disastrous was the first such project: a joint feature film, released in 1957, which the North Koreans called “Tongbang-e achim” (The Morning of the East) and the Soviets called “Bratya” (Brothers).
In North Korea, this film was banned immediately following its release and the very fact it was even made has been erased from the official history. The only copy of the film at our disposal today is the Russian dubbed version.
The film was immediately banned in North Korea, but is still available in Russian
“Brothers” tells the story of the spiritual reunion of two brothers: the older being Man Song, who manages the post-war restoration of the Supun hydropower station with the assistance of the Soviet specialists, and Man Chol, a young biologist who has just returned from the South and harbors doubts about the successes of socialism with Korean characteristics.
At first, the brothers have only one thing in common: love for their mother.
Yet, through involvement in the all-nation project to restore the hydropower station, closer acquaintance with Soviet friends, and struggle with the enemies of the people’s Korea, Man Chol turns into a true devotee of Communism.
This project employed a constellation of well-known artistic figures. The screenplay was written by two popular writers: Kim Seun Gu and Seo Man Il, then a recent graduate from the Literary Institute in Moscow.
Two heartthrobs of the North Korean screen starred in the major male roles: Pak Hak, who first emerged in the first North Korean film, “My Hometown,” in 1949, performed the role of Man Song, and Sin Seo Min played the role of Man Chol.
Hwang Chol, a-then famous theater actor with an impressive masculine charm and the first People’s Artist of North Korea, played the role of Party secretary. The role of the mother was played by a famous dancer, Choe Seung Hui. Her daughter, An Seung Hui, a fresh graduate from Moscow ballet school, performed two roles: the role of Ok Rim, Man Chol’s fiancée, and the role of a dancer in a Seoul night club. The role of female engineer was played by Kim Hyeong Suk, who also starred in “Newly Weds” (1955).
On the Soviet side, this assemblage was complemented by screenwriter Arkadii Perventsev, a distinguished Soviet journalist who specialized in Korean topics, popular actor Mikhail Pugovkin, and the talented composer Armen Khachaturyan, whose melodic, dramatic music added more dynamics to the narration.
The film was banned with no explanation, so contemporaries could only guess what was wrong about “Brothers.” Most interesting is the opinion of Elena Berman, the Soviet wife of one of the Korean co-authors of the film, Seo Man Il – and a prominent writer and journalist in her own right.
In a private letter from 1955, Elena proudly informs her friend that, “they had recently started screening the first joint Soviet-North Korean film based on [Seo] Man Il’s scenario.”
The joint project drifted far from the initial idea in the opposite direction
Yet, she states with regret, her husband could not get to Moscow in time because of sickness, and now “Man Il is in great worry: further work will be done without his participation by a talentless writer, A. Perventsev, an opportunist who was suggested by the Soviet side as a coauthor and who does not know the reality of Korea.”
In a later comment on this letter, Elena states that: “Man Il’s concerns have proved correct. Perventsev considered the Korean variant of the scenario as not exotic enough and rewrote it without consulting with Man Il, going with his own understanding and taste. The result was so implausible that the Ministry of Culture of the DPRK did not dare to show it to Koreans.”
Thus, in Elena’s version of events, the lack of talent, unprofessionalism, and a lack of cultural sensitivity on the part of the Soviet scenario-cowriter led to the production of an “implausible” film and this was the major reason why the film was banned in North Korea.
However, a comparative analysis of six subsequent scripts and the finished film show that Perventsev did not impose his visions on Korean colleagues.
In the process of his work, the joint project drifted far from the initial idea in the opposite direction — a stubborn attempt to appease the North Korean political perspective at the cost of the Soviet one.
In fact, what killed “Brothers” was not Arkadii Perventsev’s “lack of professionalism,” but rather the politics of the year of the film’s production – 1957.
THE DAWN OF NATIONAL STALINISM
After Stalin’s death in 1953, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev pushed a multifaceted course of de-Stalinization, known by the poetic euphemism “thaw.”
This “thaw” involved both the liberalization of Soviet political culture and the condemnation of Stalin’s “cult of personality.”
The Soviet economy was to retreat from the path of mass mobilization and put greater emphasis on individual welfare and material comforts. In international politics, Khrushchev promoted the idea of peaceful coexistence with the capitalist world.
All the above principles, deemed obligatory for all members of the socialist camp, were the last things on Kim Il Sung’s mind. The North Korean leader had just grasped total power and did not intend to relinquish it. If he was ever to correct Stalinism, it would be to intensify it, not weaken it.
The extreme solipsism of North Korean culture… was increasingly intolerant even to the slightest traces of alternative perspectives or liberalism
At first, the cautious leader of North Korea did not openly oppose the new Soviet line.
Yet, the failed anti-Kim Il Sung coup in 1956, initiated by Soviet and Chinese factions in the North Korean leadership under the banner of struggle against Kim’s “cult of personality,” forced Kim Il Sung to radically retreat from the Khrushchev-designated path, safeguarding his position by deploying rhetoric lauding nationalism, self-sufficiency, and independence.
“Brothers” was one of the many victims of this new path. Both the central plot-lines of the movie, the post-war reconstruction of North Korea by the joint efforts of socialist brotherhood as well as ideological disagreements between North and South Korean people, were incongruent with the nascent “national Stalinism.”
Juche – a term which first emerged around this time – presupposed that Koreans should accomplish everything independently and that the nation remained inseparable mentally and ideologically, driven by the same love for the Great Leader.
Even more inappropriate were the film’s modest touches of “thaw”-style liberalism, which contradicted the mass-mobilization fervor of Kim Il Sung’s North Korea.
The most unbearable feature of this “thaw” was, of course, the lack of references to the Leader.
The authors of the script worked hard to adapt the film to the political standards of North Korea, rewriting the story six times.
Even the last version was not final. The completed film underwent even more political editing: the process of negotiating with the emerging standards of ‘national Stalinism’ went along the following lines:
Glorification of Kim Il Sung’s personality and activities
While the script contained no references to Kim Il Sung, it did begin with a quotation from the leader: “there is no force in the world which can stop the Korean people.” The final scene also contained the phrase: “The War is finished.”
But in the finished film, the phrase turned into “The War is finished with our victory” – an attempt to persuade the viewers that the stalemate in which Korean War ended was actually a victory for the North.
Obliteration of the internationalist message
Initial scenes contained numerous references to “foreign friends,” including Chinese, German, Czechoslovakian, etc. A wounded Man Chol is moved to a hospital in a Polish emergency car, for example. The film shows Chinese volunteers emerging as a decisive force in the Korean War and the country’s post-war reconstruction.
In one scene, an American bomber plane is successfully shot down by the Chinese, and a Chinese engineer heroically dies while disarming the bomb. In one of the dialogues, we see the following exchange of phrases:
“The tunnel has been finished already!” “Of course! Chinese comrades work here!”
In the finished film, these references were eradicated. The American plane is shot down by the Koreans, the engineer is Korean, and the tunnel-making, needless to say, is accomplished by the Koreans.
The finished version also eliminated this line of dialogue between two villains, Yi and Choe, who plot a conspiracy against the republic:
– Yi: “You should make the Russians and Chinese enemies of Koreans.”
– Choe. “But how can I do this? The Russians freed this country from the Japanese, the Chinese protected it from Yankees. Korea, Russia, China – they are like a stone wall!”
Turning Soviet protagonists into insignificant side-characters
While in the script the Soviet characters emerge as all-important organizers of the plant’s reconstruction, as one would expect from a joint production, their number and significance were radically decreased in the finished product.
It also eliminated the motifs of friendship between Soviet divers and Man Chol and a passing flirt between Ok Rim and Soviet divers when they ride a train to Korea.
In the final script, a young Soviet calls Ok Rim in her Russian name, Olya. Ok Rim agrees to be called by that name and suggests the two have a walk during a brief train stop.
In the finished film, the tone of the conversation between Ok Rim and the Soviets has radically changed. When a young Russian calls Ok Rim “Olya,” Kotov, an older engineer, corrects him, saying that her name is Ok Rim, and in Korean, this means ‘amber.’ Ok Rim behaves in a strict, reserved way.
Decrease of political tensions between the brothers
Many scenes of political disagreements between the brothers disappeared in the final version. These include, for instance, Man Chol’s sarcastic comment: “They told me in the South that the North lives by fantasies… You promise, you swear. And you do not fulfill your promises.”
A critical remark of Man Chol, which contained criticism of North Korean cult of heroism (“Look at this ox! He must be a hero too! Tell me, why you always strive to find heroism everywhere? Because this is a convenient way to extract everything from people?”) is turned into a less-politically-charged comment (“Do you want me to work like this ox? You cannot do it. I am not a wordless animal!”).
Decrease of romantic themes
Fictional romance was one element of the political “thaw” which the puritan Kim Il Sung particularly hated. The film-makers radically decreased the initially-abundant romantic motifs, obliterating the love line between Man Song and Sung Heui and reducing romantic scenes between Man Chol and Ok Rim.
The feminine lover of Man Song, the engineer Sung Heui, is transformed into a lady of steel. In one telling scene, she suggests an unorthodox technical decision: to investigate the bottom of the river using a submersible with a living man inside and no oxygen supply.
When Soviet colleagues and male Party cadres warn her about the risk that the person might suffocate, she coldly quotes the Russian poet Nekrasov: “A deed washed with blood would become priceless.”
Reduction in “liberal softness”
The film also decreased the motifs of weaknesses and the characters’ doubts about the extra-speedy reconstruction. For instance, they erased a scene of mass panic on the construction site following a false bomb threat.
In the script, Man Song must search for a reckless person who will agree to get inside the submersible with no oxygen supply; in the film, he has several willing volunteers and eventually selects his brother.
In the script, the party secretary summons Man Song and orders him to take care of his workers’ needs: “You cannot restore the power plant by relying on enthusiasm alone. Sometimes you do not care what people eat and how they live”.
In the film, the Party secretary calls only for the spiritual support of workers: “The majority of people understand our difficulties. They work hard, and we have to take care of them. You often are too irritable.” Man Son reacts with the phrase: “What can I do about it? This is my nature.”
Even the revised and politically-compliant outcome failed to satisfy Pyongyang political supervisors. The integral messages of international aid and disagreements between the Northerner and Southerner brothers remained, as well as motifs concerning the heroism of the sons in the name of their mother, not the Great Leader.
One scene in the film may have particularly irritated North Korean cultural officials. In a Seoul bar, Man Chol witnesses the licentious dance of an unknown Korean girl in front of Americans, who then give her a pack of money and invite her to their table.
An indignant Man Chol wants to save the girl, who reminds him of, and is played by the same actress as, his bride Ok Rim, a student of ballet in a Moscow school. Man Chol’s professor persuades him that “if you save one girl, another would take her place” and suggests that Ok Rim is also selling her body in Russia.
However, after Man Chol meets with Ok Rim in North Korea and witnesses her modest national dance at the construction site and respectful treatment of Russians toward her, he understands how wrong his concerns were.
For all this benign political contrast, the scene in the Seoul bar is far too detailed and sensual by North Korean standards. An Seung Hui, with her cheeky smile and half-naked body, performs the dance in the bar with such enthusiasm that it is clear that she enjoys the role of the ‘bad girl’ much more than the role of the thoroughly wholesome Ok Rim.
The failure of the first joint North Korean-Soviet film demonstrated the extreme solipsism of North Korean culture, which was increasingly intolerant even to the slightest traces of alternative perspectives or liberalism.
The film was banned simply because the filmmakers failed to completely erase such traces.
All later joint North Korean films, be it with China or the Soviet Union, were joint only in name. In fact, they promoted exclusively North Korean visions – anything else could not be tolerated in Juche Korea.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Youtube stills, edited by NK News
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