Kim Puts On A Festival

Pyongyang is a festival like no other," began British documentary-maker Daniel Gordon. The audience could hardly disagree--and not just because they were in North Korea, where dissenters get thrown in prison. Hardly anything here is the same as anyplace else. The rest of Gordon's words were drowned out by loudspeakers blaring a simultaneous Korean translation of his opening address to the nine-day Pyongyang International Film Festival. No matter: nothing could have prepared most North Koreans for some of this year's offerings.

For many of the foreign attendees, the most thrilling scenes weren't on the screen but in the audience. Among the festival's 90 films from 40-odd countries, one of the biggest favorites was Tuesday's showing of the 2002 comedy "Bend It Like Beckham." North Koreans roared at the jokes and gasped at the love scenes-- an eye-popping departure from the government-made propaganda flicks that are standard viewing fare in the Hermit Kingdom. "It was incredible," said a stunned filmgoer who has visited the country regularly for the past decade. "The entire crowd responded spontaneously and naturally. That was something I've never seen before."

Western films remain forbidden to the average North Korean. Instead they are fed a diet of cheesy formula fare: brave citizens struggle against a stream of villains intent on wrecking the country, everyone from Japanese colonists to decadent American imperialists to the latter's puppets, the South Koreans. "I knew the plot," one Beijing filmmaker said after a private screening of a North Korean drama. "Even before people opened their mouths, I knew what they would say and how they'd say it. Everything in North Korea is like China, long ago, like in my parents' time."

The country's supreme leader, Kim Jong Il, is a voracious movie addict, a huge fan of James Bond and Elizabeth Taylor, with a private library of some 15,000 titles. "Genius of the Cinema" is one of his honorifics, and a tour guide at the Hongzesan film studio in suburban Pyongyang says the dictator has visited 592 times. (The studio itself is a low-rent fantasyland of villages with thatched huts, colonial mansions and boozy saloons.) Even so, no more than a hundred privileged individuals were allowed to see this year's offerings from the West, and the Korean-language voice-over scripts were carefully edited by government censors. Their rewrites still couldn't fix everything. "There was definite shock at some sex scenes," says Eva Munz, a visiting German film worker. Perhaps even more shocking in some ways was the North Korean debut of Miramax's 1995 "Cry, the Beloved Country," a film that stresses the importance of speaking out against an evil system.

The world has changed since 1987, when the annual event began as the Pyongyang Film Festival of the Nonaligned and Other Developing Countries. Offerings then included flicks about Middle Eastern guerrilla groups and colonial oppression in Africa. Now something seems to be stirring in Pyongyang as well. One of this year's most telling moments came during the opening scenes of "A State of Mind," Gordon's new documentary on life in the North. When the camera focused on a group of four old men at a game of cards, the audience shrieked with delight. "We've just never seen anything like that in a film before," said an excited viewer. "We never see normal people, in normal life." It's a force that could change the country, if it spreads: truth.