In his upcoming nonfiction nail-biter A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power, author Paul Fischer recounts, as his subtitle suggests, a particularly bizarre episode of North Korean history. The book also doubles as a glimpse inside the largely secret world of North Korean film production — what the content of the country’s movies typically is, who’s in them, how they’re made, and what Americans look like on Pyongyang screens. It’s fascinating stuff, and Fischer is uniquely suited to offer his perspective on the country’s response to The Interview and the maelstrom that has ensued. Apparently, the world’s most oppressive dictatorship doesn’t have much of a sense of humor.
Would the North Korean leadership have seen a satire like The Interview as a shock? Do they have any self-awareness about what Hollywood thinks of them?
The thinking now is that the country’s elite has fairly easy access to Hollywood entertainment. So the higher echelons would have an idea of the cultural and political standards of Hollywood filmmaking. Remember, Kim Jong-un went to boarding school in Switzerland and loves NBA basketball — he knows what kind of films American studios make. A sort of stoner comedy, or something with that kind of tone, wouldn’t be a surprise to him. But The Interview crossed a line. The North Koreans are more comfortable with Hollywood films where the country is depicted as a dangerous villains, like in Red Dawn. The Interview was always going to push their buttons.
So North Korea’s response was predictable?
It was obvious to me that the North Koreans were going to get offended, because they get offended at everything. They always put out statements moaning about perceived slights — they’ve been threatening to unleash a sea of fire on people for 40 years now. What’s unpredictable is that this time they actually did something about it. It’s not their usual modus operandi to follow up on being offended in such a direct way. But they’ve been developing their hacking program for a few years now. Maybe this is something that could happen more and more with the Kim regime.
Obviously the depiction of Kim Jong-un in The Interview is intended to be deflating. Do we have any sense of whether or not Americans are ever portrayed similarly in North Korean films?
The way Americans are shown is equally counterfactual. There’s a long-running film franchise in North Korea that Kim Jong-il started called — depending on how you translate — Unknown Heroes or Unsung Heroes. It’s all about undercover spies, and the villains in every single one of them are dastardly Americans with bad hair and plans to kill children or poison people with AIDS. So there’s a sense in which the anger about The Interview being offensive to North Koreans is a little bit of the pot calling the kettle black. One of the weird things about The Interview situation is that in real life Kim Jong-un is this short, fat young guy who’s running a failed, bankrupt irrelevant state. I haven’t seen The Interview, of course, but from the trailers they make Kim Jong-un look like this broad-shouldered, badass cigar-smoking leader of an awesomely dangerous state. It’s actually a flattering portrayal. But it’s like with any kind of bully: They don’t get the joke. The fact that the joke exists is threatening.
(Below: A scene from a North Korean film depicting American characters.)
I assume they don’t make comedies in North Korea.
The movies are all very serious. Or not so much serious as earnest. If you’re going to make comedy, you’ve got to run the risk of making yourself look ridiculous, which the Kims would never do.
What are the country’s films about? What’s the role of film in North Korea?
Historically, film has been the main propaganda tool. North Korea is a theater state, and cinema is the main driver of their visual language and cultural propaganda about the supremacy of the Kims and the country as a worker’s paradise. The industry has always been under state control, and Kim Jong-il famously rose through the ranks by his work in the country’s film division. They understood that film was the easiest way to indoctrinate a whole population. Reading books is solitary and you can’t know if someone is reading what you want them to be reading when they’re alone, but film is a collective activity and one that the state could control easily.
Is that still the case?
For 50 years, North Korea made every film that their own people saw, and they blocked every film from the outside world. It’s one of the ways that they built the monolithic worldview that makes the place what it is today. But there is a black market there now, and as other journalists have reported, DVD sales are one of the main drivers in causing the cracks in the Kims cult of personality. People see foreign films and then start to understand things as benign as the fact that people on the outside go to restaurants and have cars and dishwashers — never mind something like The Interview, which makes a point of not treating Kim Jong-un like a god.
Just to go back to how North Koreans see us in their movies: Who plays the Americans?
Up to the ‘70s and ‘80s, they were played by Koreans in whiteface. The actors would put on weird accents that they assumed were what Western accents sounded like. Later on, there are a bunch of American soldiers who defected to North Korea — the Dresnoks and the Jenkinses and all that. Kim Jong-il figured, “I don’t know what to do with these guys, so I’ll put them in movies.” They always used to play the evil American or British — usually American — bad guys. One day someone would turn up at these guys’ door and say, “This is what you’re doing today,” and put them on a film set.
The country found The Interview’s portrayal of Kim Jong-un to be hugely offensive. Are the Kims ever portrayed by actors in North Korea?
I believe there’s one film biography of Kim Il-sung — called either The Sun of Korea or The Star of Korea — where he’s played by an actor. Allegedly, this was a guy who they brought in and gave plastic surgery to so that he looked like Kim Il-sung and then, when they were done with him, they sent him off to the concentration camps. That’s the only time, because the thinking was, How do you have a guy play god? How do you paint god? So, with the Interview, the idea that there was an American playing the great leader, and playing him for laughs, and getting killed at the end — that just couldn’t be allowed.