The film opens with a story from the Korean War: the unsolved murder of a railway worker killed next to the railroad to Pyongyang. It then skips ahead to 1976 and the Panmunjom Incident, when DPRK troops murdered two American officers with an axe when they led a team that was trimming the branches of a large poplar tree within the Joint Security Area.
(If you visit the northern Joint Security Area you can usually find the ax on display in the DPRK Panmunjom museum. Following the murders, the United Nations command launched a massive operation to cut down the tree, an operation that involved huge numbers of mobilised regular troops, army engineers, special forces, helicopters, fighter jets, and strategic bombers. The operation was a success.)
The film posits that the Panmunjom incident was part of a larger scheme of confrontations coordinated by the United States, which also involved the activation of spies who had infiltrated a city near Pyongyang during Korean War and who were waiting for their moment to strike. And that’s where the film picks up the story: the DPRK counterintelligence agency finds evidence that two of these American-trained spies are trying to steal the prized “C-5 Servo Tool” from a DPRK factory. But they soon discover evidence that suggests much more nefarious business is afoot.
This film is reminiscent of the spy thrillers made after the Second World War as the Cold War took hold. The spies have old-school cover names like “Night Cat” and “White Rose”; they pass messages using carrier pigeons and dead letter drops. But the film also features some high tech spy gadgets. Back in the mid-1970s – when the film is set – remote controls bombs were arguably still something of a novelty (at least in the DPRK). And we see one of the enemy agents using a night vision lens, which was certainly a high tech in the mid-1970s.
The DPRK counterintelligence agents talk about one of the enemy agents as being the “Son of an eliminated landlord…” The DPRK government is very interested in the family background of its citizens. From around 1960 onwards the state developed the Songbun system, a political caste system that classifies all the country’s citizens according to their background. Citizens all fell under three broad Songbun categories: core, basic, or hostile. The core class included members of families whose members fought in the revolutionary movement. The hostile class included citizens whose family members were landlords, or collaborators with landlords or the Japanese occupying forces. The remainder were put under a ‘basic’ category. Citizens with a poor Songbun, and their family members, usually find themselves denied high level posts within the civil service or industry. Citizens with a poor Songbun can face stronger penalties if they are convicted of crimes. They are unable to live in Pyongyang and may be excluded from major cities entirely, forced to live in the countryside or in prison farms. So talk of someone being the “Son of an eliminated landlord…” has more complex social connotations in the context of the DPRK than it would in other socialist countries in the 1970s. (This report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea provides a good description of the Songbun system and the role it plays in the lives of citizens of the DPRK.)
There are several scenes notable for the fact that they contain a caucasian actor playing the role of an American commander. I’m not sure who it is but at a guess I’d say it is either James Dresnok or Charles Jenkins, who gained fame in the DPRK playing the role of stereotype Bastard American Soldiers. They became permanent residents of the DPRK after defecting to the country in 1962 and 1965, respectively. (The documentary ‘Crossing the Line’ tells the story of Dresnok’s defection and subsequent life in the DPRK.)
This is an entertaining and engaging little film (the running time is only 70 minutes.) If you can get your hands on a copy of the DVD it is definitely worth a look. (You can also find a copy on YouTube with English subtitles.)
(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.)