This film is about a married couple striving to work hard so that the Respected General, Kim Jong Il, will visit their workplaces so that their work units can have a photo taken with him. Or, as the cover blurb puts it, the film depicts “the earnest desires of our people and servicepersons, who always dream of meeting and having the respected General Kim Jong Il with them”.
The husband works in an army engineering team that is building a new hydroelectric power station in Huichon. His wife is a member of an artistic troupe training to perform for the workers on the project. The couple have a son who is struggling to deal with the absence of his father, whose worksite is far from home. The film explores the impact of the division of the family on their lives.
One of the key messages is that of the importance of ordinary people working together to achieve great things for the DPRK, despite the pressures that their hard work (often far from home) can put on their personal lives.
Much of the political content of the film can be split into four main categories: the centrality of the Respected General, the role of speed campaigns, representations of affluence, and the depictions of gender relations.
The Respected General
The primary purpose of the film is to showcase the love that The People have for Kim Jong Il. The husband and wife work hard every day to show their love to him. The work teams strive to complete their projects early to please him, and they plant flowers at the dam construction site so that it looks beautiful when he visits. The role of Kim Jong Il as the ‘national parent’ is shown through the linking of the strong desire of the couple’s son for a family photo to be taken with his father present, and the equally strong desire of the workers to have their photo taken with the Respected General. (In real life, Kim Jong Il reportedly visited the Huichon construction site eight times. You can read about his visits 2010 and 2011 at the Korean Central News Agency website.)
The Huichon project is alleged to have played a part in Kim Jong Il’s death. The ROK news agency Chosun Ilbo reported that upon hearing of serious structural defects in the hastily completed dam, including reports of serious leaks, the Respected General flew into a fit of rage so great that it caused his fatal heart attack. (The usual caveats about the difficulty in confirming the accuracy of reports about the DPRK leadership are attached to this story.)
The work of the husband on the Huichon Hydroelectric Power Station is referred to during the film as being part of the “Huichon Spirit Campaign”. Spirit Campaigns (also known as Speed Campaigns) are a recurring theme in the economic history of the DPRK. They involve the mobilisation of large numbers of people (including the military) to work on a major development project, in this case the building of a new hydroelectric power station, with the goal of completing the project in a much smaller space of time than what would usually be required.
Due to the lack of energy (e.g. fuel oil) in the DPRK the availability of mechanised construction equipment is relatively limited. Spirit Campaigns replace mechanisation with the use of vast amounts of people power. This is demonstrated during a scene in which we see people throwing rocks into the back of trucks by hand, a task that in more energy rich countries would likely be achieved with bulldozers.
Spirit Campaigns are usually for projects with national prestige. In this case, the building of a new power plant that we are told will provide much needed energy for The People. (The importance of hydroelectric power in the DPRK can be seen by the presence of a hydropower dam in the national emblem.) And the achievement of the engineering team in blasting a waterway tunnel through bedrock is compared to the glory of killing American soldiers in war.
Reference in made in the film to another Spirit Campaign, the West Sea Barrage, which we are told was worked on by a colleague of the main characters in the film. More recent examples of Spirit Campaigns are the the 150-Day Battle in 2009 and the current Masikryong Ski Resort campaign.
Despite the efforts put into Spirit Campaigns, the results are not always helpful. A similar phenomenon to the Spirit Campaigns can be found in the history of China’s Great Leap Forward, such as in the failed attempt to massively increase domestic steel production by using backyard smelters.
The film depicts the characters as living lives of relative affluence (for the DPRK). Their affluence is represented in several ways. We see the wife preparing a variety of foods, the in-laws visit with large baskets filled with rice cakes and fresh fruit, and we are shown supermarket shelves fully stocked with a multitude of products. The first view we have of the couple’s apartment shows us their television, which has traditionally been considered a sign of affluence. (The Kims have a history of giving televisions as gifts to the faithful, see here for one example.) The couple’s close friends have a large and very well furnished apartment. They also have a digital camera that they use to take a photo of their family, although we don’t see a computer in their home. The characters work at night using electric lights: a reliable supply of electricity (especially at night) is still seen as a propaganda prop in the DPRK because in reality it is a rarity.
These displays of affluence are counterbalanced by some interesting moments in the film that acknowledge the country’s economic hardship, with one character even going so far as to say “Though we don’t have enough food and electricity now, your house is filled with lots of love.”
We see the wife tending to ducks in the ‘sideline farm’ that the couple have on their balcony, and there are a couple of other mentions of ‘sideline farms’. Sideline food production became increasingly important in the 1990s as the famine known as the Arduous March took hold. Since the 1950s citizens of the DPRK, especially in the cities, relied on food rations provided through the state’s Public Distribution System. As the Arduous March progressed, the rations provided to most citizens started to shrink. By the mid-1990s the Public Distribution System had collapsed and widespread starvation commenced. Many citizens realised that their greatest chance of survival lay in growing food in small private plots of land. What the producers themselves didn’t consume was sold in the private market or traded for other household goods and services. That sideline farms were mentioned a couple of times during the film shows that the filmmakers (and therefore the state) acknowledge that sideline farms have become a part of life.
The film provides a view of traditional gender relations within the DPRK. It is made quite clear that it is the role of women to look after household tasks like preparing food and looking after children. The role of women in family life was made described explicitly in one scene in which the wife asks her friend “Do you have any desires?” and her friend replies “For us women it’s just to serve our husbands well and make good housework. That’s wives’ pleasure and happiness.”
In contrast to this traditional conception of the role of women, the film hints at the contemporary role of women in the DPRK economy. For example, the wife was shown as being responsible for looking after the sideline food production for their household. When the private market blossomed in the DPRK during the Arduous March it was women that were primarily responsible for producing and trading goods and services. As married women were expected to look after their household they were generally free of the obligation to go to work, which gave them the time and opportunity required to engage in private market activities. The men however still had to go to work, despite the fact that there was very little work to do.
Shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia decided that the novelty of providing heavily subsidised fuel oil to the DPRK – which had no intention of reforming its highly inefficient centralised economy – had finally worn off. The DPRK was unable to afford the energy it needed at market prices and industry ground to a halt. But workers still had to turn up to the factories at which production had ceased. As there was officially no private industry in the DPRK, workers were technically all state employees. And state employees had to show up and clock in order to get paid, and to avoid arrest and punishment for dereliction of their duty to the state. This obligation largely prevented men from engaging in private market activity, which became (and largely remains) the purview of women.
Not all films from the DPRK are so explicitly focused on talking about the Respected General or the Dear Leader, Kim Il Sung. For example, Centre Forward is a cracking film about soccer that successfully incorporates ideological themes in a way that is “at times unnoticeable.” It is the stark obviousness of this film’s political theme that at times makes it tiresome viewing. It is curious that the DPRK has gone to the effort to produce English subtitles for a film that caters almost entirely to the domestic audience (and the very small audience of foreign fans of DPRK films).
If you do decide to watch this film two things to look out for are an appearance by Ri Chun Hui, the country’s most famous newsreader, and a rather trippy scene involving a flying shot across the countryside at hyper-speed.
(Many thanks to Koryo Tours for loaning me a copy of this film. Each month, Koryo Tours holds a screening of a film from the DPRK (with English subtitles) at their office in Chaoyang, Beijing. And they sell DPRK beer and cider to enjoy during the film! For details of their upcoming film nights check out their blog and the Koryo Tours Twitter account.)