‘Bend It Like Beckham’ Is First Western Film to Screen on North Korean Television

The broadcast was arranged to celebrate 10 years of diplomatic relations between Pyongyang and Britain.


BEIJING -- Bend It Like Beckham this week became the first Western commercial feature film to screen on North Korean television, one of the organizers of the broadcast told The Hollywood Reporter on Friday.

Director Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 British women’s soccer romance starring Kiera Knightly would have appealed to North Korean audiences, said Nick Bonner, one of the Dec. 26 broadcast’s organizers with the British Embassy in Pyongyang.

“The film’s girl power and its humor translate really well and North Korea is football mad,” said Englishman Bonner, a Beijing-based producer of the documentary The Game of Their Lives about the North Korean soccer team that upset Italy in the 1966 FIFA World Cup.

That film, directed by Daniel Gordon, was the first non-Russian Western film to be aired on state television in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, back in 2001, at time when there was only one channel and before the film’s worldwide commercial release.

News of the broadcast came as a surprise given North Korea's recent crackdown on citizens who watched South Korean television programs. They were accused of spreading "bourgeois capitalism" and violating national security laws.

NK Intellectual Solidarity, a Seoul-based North Korean think tank, recently reported that over 1,200 North Koreans have been imprisoned for watching South Korean TV dramas and films, which often reach the North via China.

Nowadays, North Korea has two channels and Bend It Like Beckham was aired on the cultural channel with about eight minutes cut out to shelter isolated local audiences from the film’s sexual innuendo, Bonner said.

The plot also addresses homosexuality, religion and interracial relationships, all subjects taboo in the DPRK where television usually broadcasts an unwavering lineup of animation and homegrown programming deifying its leaders, Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung, and celebrating the country's army and its model farms and villages.

In recent years, the poor and isolated nation’s authoritarian government also has allowed the broadcast of Chinese-made soap operas and older Russian films.

In Beckham, which stars Jonathan Rhys Myers as a women’s soccer coach, actress Parminder Nagra plays an Indian called Jesminda who rebels against her traditional Sikh family’s notion of what’s appropriate for young girls by joining a local London women’s soccer team.

Beckham first showed in North Korea at the 2006 Pyongyang International Film Festival in front of an audience of 12,000 viewers, Bonner said. “Everybody was trying to get tickets,” he said, noting that the film, which was dubbed into Korean, caused a murmur in the crowd when the coach (Myers) asks Jessminda (Nagra): “It’s your life, what are you going to do with it?”

“That line’s translation used ‘Juche,’ the word that expresses the North Korean ideal meaning ‘Man is master of his own destiny.’ The audience absolutely loved that,” Bonner said.

The Beckham TV broadcast was arranged to celebrate 10 years of diplomatic relations between Pyongyang and Britain, whose Ambassador in Pyongyang, Peter Hughes, in October helped arrange for the Middlesboro women’s soccer team to play two exhibition matches in the DPRK capital. They lost both, said Bonner, who has decades of experience trying to build the DPRK’s relations with the outside world. “Middlesboro is good,” Bonner said, “But in North Korea, the women’s teams are really good.”

-- Park Soo-mee in Seoul contributed to this report.