Australian documentarian Anna Broinowski traveled to North Korea in 2012 for an unusual purpose: to make a documentary in the style of a North Korean propaganda film. After receiving a copy of Kim Jong Il’s propaganda manifesto The Cinema and Directing as a joke gift, Broinowski became fascinated with the now-deceased supreme leader’s passion for filmmaking. She decided to visit the notoriously closed country to learn about its propaganda industry. After a long application process, she was granted government-approved access to the country’s filmmakers. Broinowski spent 24 days in North Korea, working alongside North Korean filmmakers to create her own documentary about a company planning to drill for gas close to her Sydney home.
The following is an excerpt from her book Aim High in Creation! about her last few days in North Korea. She is unexpectedly cast as an “evil American wife” in a film, and shares an emotional final dinner with the North Korean filmmakers she worked alongside.
“You bowl, then turn with great joy to your husband, and say: ‘Strike!’” says Mr. Ri excitedly. I nod, and he barks at the makeup lady in Korean: “Brush her hair, for God’s sake, or she’ll look like a spinster!”
Sun Hi, my cheeky young interpreter, giggles, but doesn’t translate. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d end up in a white jumpsuit with Joan Collins hair, playing an “evil American bowling secretary” in Pyongyang. The bowling alley has a ’90s monitor, three pink lanes, and a Lady Di poster on the wall. It’s part of a secret labyrinth of snooker bars, karaoke discos, and ping-pong rooms tucked away in the mysteriously named “Underfloor” of the Yanggakdo Hotel.
Ri strides to the camera and looks at me expectantly. All I know is that my character likes purple mascara and is married to the oldest Dresnok. Dresnok’s father, the infamous Joe Dresnok, was a US private who defected across the DMZ from South Korea in 1962. He became a household name in North Korea by playing “Yankee bastards” in a string of popular war movies produced by Kim Jong Il.
His sons, who speak basic English in thick Korean accents, now carry on the family tradition. They are playing the villainous crew of the USS Pueblo. The middle Dresnok has been cast as a Yankee spy with whom I am apparently required to flirt, but Sun Hi considers this too risqué to translate. I squint through the lights at Ri’s 20-man crew. “What’s my motivation?” I ask, feebly.
“Just tell her it’s real,” Ri snaps — and turns to Dresnok. “It’s a shame your chest doesn’t bulge out,” he grumbles, butting out his cigarette. “Action!”
I hurl the bowling ball at the pins, narrowly missing a squatting man waiting to catch it. “Strike!” I say stiffly and look straight down the barrel. Ri darkens. Film stock is expensive; most North Korean actors only get two takes. “I’m sorry, I fucked up,” I mumble, and everyone looks at me in shock.
Ri mutters something, and even the Dresnoks laugh. “He said: ‘She thinks it’s digital,’” Sun Hi translates, enjoying the putdown. It takes me four more takes to finally nail the over-the-top Californian gaucheness Ri is looking for. He scrutinizes my face, then yells at the makeup lady: “Younger! Prettier! Younger!”
The makeup lady whips out some frosty pink gloss, which she promises will knock a decade off my sun-damaged Australian skin. Ri surveys me with pity: “You’ve been directing a long time, haven’t you? It makes you look tired.” I apologize, pointlessly, for my wrinkles, and he chuckles and walks out.
“Where do you get your products?” I ask the makeup lady, who is rocking an ’80s sun visor over ’50s hair. “Some are made here, some from China,” she replies, and I show her my lipstick: “Do you use Chanel?” She glances at the tube with bored disdain, a look most North Koreans cultivate when confronted with expensive Western brands. “No. This one makes you prettier,” she says, and smears her pink gloss on my lips.
Powdered and pouffed, I join the sullen Dresnoks under the lights, feeling like Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. She had five hours to transform herself into an object of desire for younger men; I’ve had five minutes. In this scene, I must wipe Husband Dresnok’s brow with a cloth, while Spy Dresnok makes eyes at me. All right, Mr. Ri, I’m ready for my close-up, I feel like saying, reminding myself there’s nothing tragic about being 40-something, as long as you’re not trying to be 25.
“Positions!” calls Ri, and Mr. Wang drops the boom to answer his phone. He wanders off, and Ri scowls but doesn’t resist as I attach a radio mic to his lapel. He knows he has to let me shoot my film, so I will act in his.
“Action!” he yells finally, and I sashay over to Husband Dresnok as sexily as I can, hips gyrating and eyelashes fluttering, reaching up to seductively dab his huge, sweaty forehead. He freezes in horror, and the entire crew titters.
Sun Hi turns bright red: “Comrade Ri said offer him the cloth, not touch him with it!” she says, trembling with embarrassment. The frustrated Ri slumps in a deck chair under Lady Di, and stares at his script for a very long time. “We’ll just have Dresnok pick up the cloth alone,” he declares finally — and sacks me.
I slink off under the Dresnoks’ gloating gaze, back through the shadowy Underfloor. “Team Gas,” our three-person North Korean film crew, follow in supportive silence. I feel like I’ve let down my country.
In the foyer, Ms. K, our energetic production manager, has good news. (I’ve left out full names of subjects here, for their own protection.) My email to my Australian producer got through: Our contract with Korfilm, the Pyongyang production company facilitating our shoot, is good to sign.
“Let us dine with the workers of the Pyongyang Film Studio!” Ms. K beams, and I remember, a little sadly, that in 48 hours we’ll be gone. Team Gas is with us right to the end: The surveillance services of Q — the minder who’d been assigned to make sure I don’t film anything I’m not supposed to — are still required on tomorrow’s trip to the DMZ.
But the North Korean filmmakers are wrapped. We join them in the meadow of Kim Jong Il’s European film set, where a picnic table has been spread with platters of shredded cabbage, kimchi, and beef. The barbecues are already smoking, and the artists are all there, in floral barbecue aprons: Mr. Pei the composer, Mr. O the cinematographer, Mr. Kang the designer, Ms. Jang the rom-com writer, the April 25 Military Film Studio director, actors Ms. Yun and Ri Yon Chol, and Mr. Ri and his crew — but thankfully, no Dresnoks. Mr. Pak, North Korea’s leading director and the group’s respected leader, stands and welcomes us with glasses of soju. We tie on our aprons and sit down.
“Anna, I will come out of my tomb to help you make your movie,” says Pak with a charming smile, and everyone toasts our project.
“I hope The Gardener will advance Australian and DPRK friendship,” Ms. Jang adds warmly. “There are lots of movies depicting motherly love. But your film says the best way to show it is to pass to the next generation a clean environment. That’s a novel idea to me, and why I like your film. When it’s made, people will learn not just about green issues but how we can show our love for our children.” The filmmakers nod solemnly, and we all toast each other again.
Then, with the speechifying out of the way, everyone slaps beef on the barbecues and gets down to gorging. Nicola Daley, my British cinematographer, films as I graze, enjoying the camaraderie of our North Korean friends. They chat in the soft afternoon light, the aprons shielding their pristine shirts from the sticky barbecue.
“Do you ever fall in love with your leading men?” I ask Ms. Yun, who is unusually relaxed, having eschewed her normal tea for soju. She giggles. “Goodness, I’ve acted a married woman so often, I can’t fall in love with my partner every time. He’s normally a soldier or a worker, and I go into character to act the feeling. But I never fall in love to the point of destroying my family.”
Pak raises his glass to her fondly: “Well said, Comrade Yun. You might find this unfamiliar, Anna, but here we consider the whole country one big family, and look out for one another. When we make a film, it’s a microcosm of society. As the director, I take on the father’s role. I care for everyone. Every morning, I look at everyone’s faces — and if someone looks troubled, I’ll inquire. If someone suffers a misfortune, or falls ill, we help that person. We aren’t just creating art, but bringing everyone together into a family with a father, mother, brothers, sisters, and grandchildren. If something goes wrong, the director’s leadership is to blame.”
“What happens to the director if something goes wrong?” I press Pak, taking advantage of his candid mood. Perhaps he’s decided to let it all hang out, now that we’re at our last supper. The mysterious Man in Black who has been monitoring the filmmakers is out of earshot, at the other end of the table.
“Directors who fail find it difficult to make a film again,” Pak says quietly. “But if you’re good, you’re given more movies to make, and it can be quite tough. In my case, I’d like some rest, but I keep being told to make new movies. I find it a bit tiring, but directing is the only thing I can do. So I bear with it and keep on going.” I wonder if Pak has the option to retire. He seems strained behind his courtly smile. Does he keep working because he wants to contribute, or because the regime gives him no choice?
If Pak is trapped, his love for his comrades, and theirs for him, is what sustains him. His wisdom and humor have made him their undisputed leader — the living embodiment of everything Kim Jong Il was meant to be, but wasn’t.
The North Korean hagiography Great Man and Cinema recounts unbelievable tales of Kim flying his crews through snowstorms in helicopters, carrying their gear up mountains, and even hunting animals for medicine when one scriptwriter’s wife got sick:
The officials said the weather was very inclement and advised him to go when it abated. Comrade Kim Jong Il said they should not postpone, even for a while, to save the patient from death. He put on his fur cap and went hunting that minute. That night many wild animals were caught. Comrade Kim Jong Il was bright with joy as he came back to Pyongyang in a car loaded with them. He told the officials to carry the animals to the scriptwriter promptly. Just as devotion makes the flower bloom even on a stone, so his great love turned into a mysterious elixir of life and enabled the patient to recover from her incurable disease miraculously.
Even if he were having an affair with her, it’s hard to imagine Kim Jong Il shooting lynx in the freezing snow for a lowly scriptwriter’s wife. But I can see Pak doing it. The only person who doesn’t appear to share the general adoration of the man is the bad-guy actor, Ri Yon Chol.
“Hey, Pak, if you’re going to play father, show Anna how to cook her beef!” Ri Yon Chol yells at Pak over the spitting coals — and Pak reaches out with his chopsticks, too late, to pull a charred scrap of meat off my barbecue.
“You telling me how to do my job, you bastard?” Pak grins — but there’s anger in his eyes. It’s the same animosity I noticed when they rehearsed on the hill: Whatever history these two share, it’s not pleasant.
“What movies have you made with Comrade Pak?” I ask Ri, hoping he’ll reveal the cause of their conflict. He bursts into derisive laughter: a sure sign I won’t get an answer.
“Anna has no idea about the affairs of our country, none at all,” I hear Mr. O saying to Pak in Japanese. Everyone is tipsy now, and the conversation is boisterous.
“That’s true. Our newspapers mainly speak about your prisons,” I intrude, hoping my childish Japanese will soften the fact I’ve just raised the taboo subject of the gulags.
Pak shoots me a look, and slips back to Korean: “God, if only she knew how much harder it is now,” he says to O. “We filmmakers used to be at the top, didn’t we…” Pak raises his glass in ironic celebration, and O, with a sympathetic nod, clinks and sculls.
“Hey, you mustn’t say things like that,” Mr. Pei interjects. “Her investors have spent a lot of money sending her here. They’ll be embarrassed!” I suspect Pei is more worried about the Man in Black than our investors.
But Pak ignores his warning. “Anna, there is a seismic shift coming in our country,” he says, deadly serious. “That’s something the DPRK can show the world. Everything is going to change. Let’s sing!”
Q and Ms. Yun immediately stand and remove their aprons, smoothing their hair. “Where have the seeds of love blossomed?” Ms. Yun begins sweetly, sweeping her arm to invite the whole group to share her joy.
“Have they sprouted near the window where learning echoes?” chimes in Q, making Nic and me look up in astonishment. The man who has said nothing but “yes” for the past 13 days has a surprisingly beautiful baritone.
“My endless love has blossomed in the bosom of my comrades,” Pak joins in, the love in his eyes for the people around him both sorrowful and warm. “My love when I am happy, my happiness when I am sad,” sings the whole table, swaying to the beat. “My endless love has blossomed in the bosom of my comrades!” Everyone cheers and Mr. Pei blushes with pride. The song is his, from the war drama My Happiness. I turn to Pak, determined to find out what he meant by a “seismic shift,” but he grabs my wrist: “Shut up. Now you must share a beloved song, from your country.”
Twenty faces turn to me expectantly. Bloody hell. The only anthems Australians sing with the same kind of patriotic fervor are AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” Cold Chisel’s “Cheap Wine,” and, in a pinch, the Peter Allen–penned Qantas jingle “I Still Call Australia Home.” My own favorite, Nick Cave’s moody ballad “From Her to Eternity,” would bomb with this crowd. They’re after something saccharine — which is not a quality the hard-bitten cynics of my motherland are known for.
Quietly cursing Pak, I take a swig of soju, and choose the most asinine thing I can think of. “It’s a beloved children’s song,” I announce. “It’s about a bird.” The filmmakers clap with delight, and in my pathetic soprano, I let rip: “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree; merry, merry king of the bush is he; laugh, Kookaburra, laugh, Kookaburra, gay your life must be.” The filmmakers nod, trying to clap to the beat. Before they can join in the chorus, I’ve finished, and everyone laughs with relief. Everyone, that is, except the Man in Black, who continues to clap to a 4/4 beat, lost inside the strange mechanical universe of his mind.
“Thank you for recollecting the Australian people’s pure and innocent childhood,” Pak says kindly, patting my hand. But Sun Hi looks appalled. “What is gay?” she whispers, clearly picturing a country so decadent even the birds are homosexual.
“It’s just an old word meaning jolly,” I say, putting her out of her misery.
Pak grabs my hand, impatient. “Anna, let us make a film together,” he says, and pulls a newspaper from his satchel. “Comrade Translator, pull yourself together,” he nudges Sun Hi.
She dutifully scans the article he’s circled. “This is about a mentally handicapped man in Pyongyang, who through the devotion of his family and comrades had a happy and productive life,” she explains.
“It is a really moving story,” Pak adds enthusiastically. “Let’s make a film about him. Take it!”
I slide the paper into my bag, stunned by Pak’s choice of subject. North Korea is notorious for its treatment of people with disabilities: According to the 2014 UN report on the country’s human rights abuses, handicapped babies are seen as “impure” and are relocated to remote areas, along with their families. Some are sent away to secret “treatment” facilities; others are killed at birth. With North Korea’s disabled population sitting at a lowly 3.4 percent, against the 10 percent world average, it is doubtful the majority survive to adulthood.
I’m sure Pak isn’t intending to make a critique of the regime’s abuses — but even a straight Kim Jong Il–style propaganda movie, in which a disabled hero devotes himself to the nation and no ill-treatment is revealed, would be a subversive act. It would fly in the face of Kim’s rule that the hero must be “physically beautiful,” and promote the idea that all people, including the disabled, are worthy of respect. “Read it when you get home,” Pak says casually, as if there’s nothing unusual in what he’s proposed.
I’m still thinking about it two hours later, when we climb into the van to drive to the Yanggakdo. Night has fallen, and the driver makes me sit in the front to distract the soldiers. “Hi there!” I wave sunnily at the first checkpoint, and the guards wave us on, too astonished to query our lack of a curfew permit.
Pak, Ms. Yun, and Ri Yon Chol chat with Team Gas in the back — and Nic and I share a smile, delighted our comrades have decided to keep drinking with us at the hotel. But then the driver stops beside an ovoid skyscraper towering over the lightless river. Ms. Yun gets out, shakes my hand through the window, and hurries off into the topiary hedges.
We drive on, down a bumpy side street I haven’t seen before. A soldier steps out of the darkness to stop us, and this time, my friendly “Hello” doesn’t deter him. “Where is your permit?” he barks at the driver — and I can feel our North Korean friends become tense.
Then a voice growls from the back of the van: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing, comrade?” The soldier, furious, marches to the window — to find Ri Yon Chol leaning out, wearing his most evil scowl. The soldier’s eyes widen in recognition.
“Yes, it’s me, you bastard,” Ri sneers, with jaded indifference. “Now let us through.” The soldier steps back, starstruck. “Nice to know my ugly mug is good for something,” Ri says pointedly to Pak, and the old man gives him a grateful nod.
We round a bend and head down a bumpy hill, to a cul-de-sac of low-rise tenements. These buildings don’t have the fresh paint and flower boxes of Yonggwang Street: They are buckled and dirty, the windowpanes either cracked or gone. Ri Yon Chol mumbles his goodbyes and disappears into the shadows.
“Are you going to join us at the hotel, sensei?” I ask Pak, desperately hoping he’s not going to disappear too. I want to talk about his film idea over some sake. I’m certain there’s more he wants to share.
He smiles, but says nothing. We turn onto a highway, and I realize it’s not the one leading back to our hotel. The North Koreans lapse into an apprehensive silence. This area, after curfew, is dangerous. I try again: “Do you think we can talk some more, Tongji Pak?”
He ignores me, and says something softly to the driver. The driver slows to a stop beside a desolate stretch of dirt and barbed wire. A line of pale, decrepit buildings is visible through the gloom, miles in the distance. Pak swings open the van door and climbs out. The North Koreans whisper goodbye.
I jump out, bewildered. Pak turns in surprise, and holds out his hand: “Goodnight, Anna. You must go back now.” I hold his hand, unable to work out what’s going on.
“Thank you, sensei, thank you for everything,” I say, and he breaks into his usual smile.
“Don’t be silly. The pleasure’s mine. Now off you go.” He gestures at the van with his head but doesn’t let go of my hand. We stand there, staring at each other, and his smile disappears. His hands start to tremble, and his eyes fill with tears. “When will I ever see you again?” he asks.
I clasp Pak’s hands tight. I wish I could disappear with him into the darkness, and meet his family. I wish I could take him back to Sydney, to meet mine. I wish I could give him a hug and tell him how much he’s taught me. I wish we could make a film together.
Instead, I climb quietly into the van, and Pak bends down to pick up his satchel. The driver does a rapid U-turn, and I peer back through the night to see my mentor hobbling over the dirt in his neatly pressed chinos, picking his way over the rubble to whatever place he calls home.
This story is a chapter in Anna Broinowski’s book Aim High in Creation!.
This essay originally appeared on Narrative.ly.
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