Every month, Koryo Tours screens a film from the DPRK at their office in Beijing. The film shown this month was ‘On the Green Carpet’. It is a romantic comedy about two colleagues working on the Arirang Mass Games. (To learn more about the Mass Games, Koryo Tours director Nick Bonner co-produced an excellent documentary about the story of two girls who participated in the 2003 Mass Games.) Not a lot of films from the DPRK are known outside of the country. The two most commonly cited examples are ‘The Flower Girl’ (1972), a beautiful and moving film about the perilous life of a young girl and her family during the time of the Japanese occupation, and ‘Pulgasari’, an (in)famous film directed by Shin Sang Ok. Shin was a leading film maker in the Republic of Korea who was kidnapped by DPRK spies (allegedly under the direct order of Kim Jong Il) and taken to the north to make films.
Compared to the grim historical drama of ‘The Flower Girl’ or the sci-fi kitschiness of ‘Pulgasari’, ‘On the Green Carpet’ is a relatively low-key tale of two former friends trying to resolve a long standing schism in their relationship. Unlike the Soviet Union, which has a rich history of experimental and artistic film (‘Man With a Movie Camera’ and ‘Solaris’ are two good examples), the DPRK has stuck with a Stalinist style of filmmaking that is suited to the country’s Stalinist political ideology. And all Good Stalinist Film it is rich in ideological content. As Kim Jong Il talks about in his book on filmmaking, cinema is important not only for its entertainment value but for its potential to act as a form of propaganda to inculcate The People with the ideology of the state.
The propaganda content of ‘On the Green Carpet’ can be split into that which you can hear, and that which you see. You hear about the love that Kim Il Sung had for the children of Korea, and how important it was for the children to practice hard so that they could put on a good performance for the Great Leader. The underlying message of the performance and its choreography would only be lost on the most disinterested viewer: the children of Korea are the planets that revolve around the sun, which represents the Great Leader himself. And, for English-speaking viewers, the name of the Great Leader appears in the subtitles in a larger bold font. There is also unspoken but highly visible political content. The Mass Games performers are shown enjoying plates heaped with rice, which is a sign of relative affluence in the country. There is a desktop computer in the office of one of the main characters. It isn’t used by her during the film but it was obviously placed in the centre of a frame, and acts as a representation of technological progress. Similarly, in the apartment of the other main character we see plates of different foods served for dinner, a television set is consciously included in the background of a shot of the main room. The character is also shown reading at night using an electric lamp. It is not the lamp that is important but rather the showing of a reliable supply of electricity in the evening that has inherent propaganda value in a country plagued by regular blackouts.
Overall, ‘On the Green Carpet’ was a genuinely sweet film. Although there were occasional groans and giggles from the audience during some of the scenes most heavily ladened with strident propagandism, it is a simple romantic comedy that is worth a watch if you’re in the mood for something light-heated but more interesting than the average Hollywood love story.