China-North Korea Co-production Offers Glimpse of Life in Present-day North Korea

1:47 AM PST 06/20/2012 by Karen Chu

'Meet in Pyongyang', shot in the North Korean capital and features a re-creation of the group performance of 100,000 people, attracts buyers in South Korea, Japan, and Europe.

SHANGHAI - Officially billed as the first China-North Korea co-produced film during more than 60 years of the neighboring countries’ diplomatic relations, dance drama Meet in Pyongyang made its mark at the Shanghai International Film Festival by offering a glimpse of life in present-day North Korea, and attracted the interests from buyers in South Korea, Japan, and Europe.

Produced by Henan Film & TV Production Group – the studio that co-produced the blockbuster Ip Man series and the upcoming Saving General Yang – with China Film Stellar, and North Korea’s Korean Film Studio, the film downplayed politics and put culture – in this case, traditional Korean dance – at the center of a celebration of the two countries’ bond, and featured a eight-minute extract of the spectacular 100,000 people Arirang group performance re-created solely for the purpose of this film. The film is shown in the Focus China sidebar at the SIFF, and in competition for the SIFF Media Award.

South Korea’s Sang Sang Moon Entertainment has signed an agreement with distributor Henan Film & TV Production Group for theatrical release of the film, and buyers from Japan, France, Spain, and Italy had expressed interest. “Buyers from around the world are intrigued to know more about how people live in a country so apparently mysterious and shrouded in secrecy,” Henan vice-chairman Lan Lixin told The Hollywood Reporter.

The film was initiated and produced by Li Shuihe, a veteran producer of Chinese “Main Melody” propaganda films, who, in his previous position as the head of the Shanxi Film Studio, had been invited to the Pyongyang International Film Festival for five consecutive years since 2006. “I found that not only do the North Korean people love movies, but also that Chinese television dramas are very popular there. So, apparently our two peoples enjoy the same type of entertainment, why not make a movie together?” asked Li, now president of China Film Stellar, a state-run studio and theatre chain partly owned by the China Film Group.

The project got the go-ahead from North Korea’s Ministry of Culture with the approval of known film buff Kim Jong-il in 2009. But the script development process itself took two years, as delicate as any diplomatic negotiations with the world’s most isolated country, generating ten drafts and revisions from each side. “The North Korean representatives insisted on telling stories about the history of our countries’ friendship, and all they proposed were stories set during the war of resistance against Japan, and the Korean war,” said Li. “But from the Chinese side, we don’t want to talk all about the past; we want to make a modern film to show to the world the present-time North Korea, a film with commercial value that would appeal to the young people in China. We have to consider the market value of the film.” The Chinese filmmakers rejected any scenes of flashbacks on the countries’ alliance during the Korean War, which in the final film was only mentioned in passing and in relation to the friendship of two young women in the 1950s.

Taking his own experience of watching for three years in a row the Arirang Mass Games, an annual group performance inaugurated in 2002 that consists of 100,000 performers in all manners of traditional dance, gymnastics, and breathtakingly synchronized formations, the idea of combining traditional Korean dance and the spectacle hit Li. A cultural exchange between two modern-day masters of the traditional Korean dance became the backbone of the story.

Yet, the image-conscious North Koreans were concerned about negative portrayals, a line of thinking that frustrated even the Chinese propaganda filmmakers. “The North Korea representatives didn’t want any conflict in the plot. They were adamant that no one from either country in the story could be in the wrong. Where’s the drama in that? So finally, we agreed that the drama would come out of misunderstandings,” said Li.

With the script finally locked down, filming began last fall in Pyongyang. The production had two parallel crews – one director from each country, one screenwriter each, and also corresponding members of the crew. On the Chinese side, Uyghur director Xierzhati Yahefu (Maimaiti's 2008) jumped at the chance of going to North Korea. “I grew up watching The Flower Girl,” the 1972 propaganda melodrama made in North Korea, allegedly written by the country’s founding leader Kim Il-sung, that had been played non-stop for years in theatres across China and was seen by hundreds of millions. “I developed a special affinity for North Korea after watching that film numerous times when I was growing up,” said the 50-year-old helmer, who shared directing duties with North Korean counterpart Kim Hyong-chol. “As it’s difficult for an ordinary citizen to go to North Korea, I thought, I must take this offer.”

The majority of the shoot took place in Pyongyang, with the production’s 15 million yuan ($2.3 million) production and marketing budget fully funded by the Chinese studios, and the North Korea partner supplying location, manpower, and approval to shoot inside the country.

All through filming, the lead actors from North Korea were chaperoned by state-assigned translators, director Xierzhati said. In addition, all of the North Korean acting and performing talents involved in the film worked for free, producer Li revealed: “The North Korean actors, from the leads to the extras, didn’t take any money. They said it’s an honor to contribute to their country. But of course, the Chinese actors were paid.”

Even the making of the film gave a view of the life a North Korean from a young age. For a scene of the rehearsal of the so-called human pixel performance at the Arirang Mass Games, 18,000 young students “volunteered” or were summoned to Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium, which has a 150,000-seat capacity. Li was concerned about the feasibility of an 8 a.m. call-time for such a massive number of school children, but when the crew got to the stadium, they found that all had arrived and were ready for action. However, lunch for the one-day shoot of the scene still could be a dilemma. “The North Korean crew told us not to worry, so we dare not ask. When lunch time came, we saw that every child had brought home-made box lunch,” Li said.

But for the 15-day filming of the re-creation of the actual Arirang performance, the filmmakers decided to solve the problem of having to feed 100,000 people by doing half-day shoots. “We started filming from early in the morning till noon,” said Xierzhati, “then let the performers go home, and resume shooting the following day. We didn’t know how to organize a lunch break for a hundred thousand people day after day.”

Previously, the 2005 film Oriental Gladiator was announced as the first China-North Korea co-production, but Li disputed that claim. “At the end, the final film was not approved by the North Koreans. So in their point of view, Meet in Pyongyang is officially the first co-produced film between the two countries,” Li stated.

An official premiere for the film is scheduled for June 26 in Pyongyang, and one in Beijing in July, both to be attended by a group of government officials from each side. Theatrical release in China is tentatively scheduled for August. Would the new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attend the Pyongyang premiere? “Kim Jong-un probably would not be there,” Li said.

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