Pyongyang Nalpharam is a historical drama set towards the start of the Japanese colonisation of Korea in the early 1900s. The film tells a story about a group of honourable fighters trying to protect a valuable manuscript that forms part of the original knowledge about the techniques of Pyongyang Nalpharam, a Korean martial art. They are fighting to protect the manuscript from being stolen by the Japanese colonialists and taken back to Japan.
The film has strong overtones of nationalism, in this case specifically about the superiority of the Korean martial arts. At one point, a Japanese character even goes so far as to say that Pyongyang Nalpharam is superior to Judo, which explains why they go to so much trouble to steal the ancient Korean manuscripts: they want to learn the secrets of the superior Korean art. This is in keeping with a regular theme of DPRK propaganda, namely that of the glorious Korean nation fighting against foreign invaders – in this case, the Japanese invaders who have taken control of Seoul.
The style of the film is reminiscent of the DPRK film Hong Kil Dong (DPRK, 1986). The leading man is dreamily handsome, and there are some great displays of martial arts that make the film reminiscent of 1970s kung foo films with unreal flying kicks and punches accompanied by old fashioned ”Kapow!” sound effects.
The sound design of the film also shares several characteristics with the Hong Kil Dong, and another DPRK classic, the soccer-themed Centre Forward’ (DPRK, 1978). The DPRK film industry seems to rely heavily on old (or old fashioned) sound recording and mixing equipment or techniques. This makes the auditory landscape interesting from a technical point of view, especially regarding the foley.
The foley is the sound recorded off set, primarily in a studio, and mixed in with sounds recorded on set. The old fashioned nature of the sound design is really noticeable in particular scenes. For example, there is a scene with horse riding early in the film. The sound of the horse hooves sounds like it was recorded in a large echoing studio (and not with horses). Another example can be heard when the characters are tromping through snow: the sound of their feet sinking into the snow sounds unnaturally loud and seems to float above the background soundscape. There are other times when the voices of the characters also float above the background soundscape.
A similar effect can be noticed when watching Centre Forward: the sounds of the kicking of the soccer ball during games, and the sound of the crowd, sound disconnected from the background soundscape.
The technical aspects of the sound design aside, this is very entertaining film. Because of the period in which the film is set, absent is the saccharine idolisation of the DPRK leadership found in films like Wish (DPRK, 2011) that are set in the modern era. It is an action packed drama that keeps the attention of the viewer throughout. This makes it well worth watching if can get your hands on a copy or find it on YouTube.
(Note: the film, along with Wish (DPRK, 2011) and Case Closed (DPRK, n.d.), were generously loaned to me by Koryo Tours. They host a film night once a month at which they showcase a film from the DPRK. Beverages from the DPRK, including the delicious Taedonggang beer, are available to enjoy on the night.)