Security was high at North Korea's recent Pyongyang International Film Festival.
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5 Oct 2012 - 4:39 PM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2012 - 6:33 PM

Arriving in North Korea to participate in the 13th Pyongyang International Film Festival's jury, my mobile phone was confiscated, and my laptop examined. It provided a perfect excuse to plug into all that jazz about a paranoid pariah state, but North Korea's extreme caution about dealing with foreigners is consistent with behaviours that caused the peninsula to be dubbed the Hermit Kingdom centuries before Kim Il Sung founded the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Emerging from customs, my guide/interpreter/minder facilitated introductions to my fellow jurors of whom only one spoke English. The next 12 days was a cacophony of simultaneous Mandarin, Russian, German and English, translated from Korean as we evaluated 16 competing features for the 13 trophies on offer.

In Tokyo, the jury is completely quarantined from the rest of the film festival. This can leave jurors feeling smothered by kindness. In Pyongyang the same respectful treatment is easily construed as an act of political isolation. From our hotel located on an island in the Taedong River, we travelled daily in a bus with tinted windows (in LA we'd get a limo, right?) to a private theatre, equipped with a full-scale screen, a row of desks, complete with earpieces for simultaneous translation, bottles of apple cider, a linen serviette, and a lamp should we wish to write notes.

One of Pyongyang's showpieces was Comrade Kim Goes Flying. Known as a UK/NK co-production because one of its producers is Beijing-based Brit Nick Bonner, it is unmistakeably a North Korean film. Since its Toronto premiere, critical response to this gently subversive movie has suggested Comrade Kim has mere 'camp' value. That's selling the film way short. However, this tale of a young woman who aspires to be a star acrobat does require a paradigm shift to embrace 'working class values' (as opposed to the 'salt of the earth' imposture of Australia's mining company-funded Red Dog which also played in Pyongyang).

On the night of the Pyongyang premiere of Comrade Kim, real-life acrobat and lead actress Han Jong Sim introduced the film to adoration, then rushed to the May Day stadium to perform on the trapeze at that night's 'Ariang' (a blend of circus, Peron rally and Busby Berekely extravaganza) and then returned to greet guests at post-screening drinks.
But the competition didn't just espouse North Korean 'Juche' (self-reliance) values. Pakistan's Bol was a strong story of an Islamic zealot whose passion for purity leads him to spiritual bankruptcy. Spending most of its first half sympathetically focussed on the sexual abuse of the man's hermaphrodite son by lecherous co-workers, this Pakistani film was a well-constructed plea for tolerance.

My personal highlight was Chinese biopic Qian Xuesen. This dazzling example of contemporary Chinese cinema presented the true story of a renowned scientist who oversaw the U.S. rocket programme when he working in America. Falling afoul of the USA's McCarthy era and racism, Qian eventually took his aeronautic brilliance back to the land of his birth. Exquisite art direction and beautiful cinematography gave a golden glow to pre-WWII California and Mao Zedong's China. The admittedly hawkish film whose subtext could be summarised as: “China's military power is ready to kick your butt!” (a poor match with the festival motto: “Independence. Friendship. Peace“) was crowned by Chen Kun's
strong performance in the title role.

Opening and closing ceremonies aside, getting to the actual Pyongyang festival screenings proved difficult for jury members (less so for other festival attendees). I lobbied my guide to get me to additional screenings. Spontaneity is rare in North Korea and the jury's packed schedule meant the odds were against success. A small sample of reasons for denying me access to additional festival sessions: “Not enough notice”; “theatres too far away”; “only one bus for jury transport”; “no taxis on Sundays”; “no subtitles”. Then two hours before one free slot, all obstacles dissolved. I was cheerfully escorted to Hong Kong film To My Dear Enemy, an entertaining romantic comedy about two lovers who become business rivals as they woo a mining company CEO into a merger.

Watching this uncritical showcase of high finance and luxury goods with the locals puzzled me. Likewise with the Marathi language Indian film, Sound of Heaven: The Story of Balgandharva, with its cross-dressing emphasis, the prominent logos of allegedly verboten South Korean car manufacturers in documentary Match 64 and even dialogue like: “I refuse to bow down to a tyrant” in Indian film Urumi. Were Pyongyang's programmers persistently pushing the envelope or is the breadth of North Korean society just wider than preconceptions allow?

Locals were clearly challenged by the opening night's Chinese epic White Vengeance. Every violent act prompted shock signified by a 'Skippy'-like tut-tutting sound. But it was the knotty plot that really caused the minds of Pyongyangers to drift. The clue? A familiar blue glow kept erupting in the mid-movie darkness. Those North Koreans privileged enough to own a mobile phone that connects to the strictly domestic network are as compulsive about looking at the devices as people anywhere else. Not for the first time I felt like confiscating a few phones myself.

Pyongyang Prizes

Best Film: Big Hope (Germany)
Best Director: Comrade Kim Goes Flying (North Korea/UK)
Best Script: Full Circle (China)
Best Photography: Bol (Pakistan)
Best Actor: Daniel Brühl, Big Hope (Germany)
Best Actress: Polina Kutepova, House of Winds (Russia)
Best Art Design: Qian Xuesen (China)
Best Music: Women on The Sixth Floor (France)
Best Technique: Qian Xuesen (China)

Shorts/Documentary/Animation competition
Best Direction: Dive (Philippines)
Best Composition: Tons of Passion (Switzerland)
Best Photography: Day In, Day Out (Canada)
Special Prize of International Jury: Asmaa (Egypt)