Meet in Pyongyang: Shanghai Review

Meet in Pyongyang - H 2012
The story of two beautiful young dancers offers a rare glimpse of North Korea today, making it a desirable curiosity item for festivals.

Directors Xierzhati Yahefu and Kim Hyong-chol's film reveals rare glimpses of modern day Pyongyang in a story about two young dancers.

Offering an unexpectedly informative snapshot of the mysterious North Korea, Meet in Pyongyang has the distinction of being the first official Chinese-North Korean coprod in 60 years. The story of two smiling young dancers who learn each other’s techniques on an exchange program has a studied simplicity that feels like it was written by a joint committee of diplomats around a conference table, and indeed the artistic collaboration between Chinese director Xierzhati Yahefu and his Korean counterpart Kim Hyong-chol boasts two screenwriters, two D.P.s and many producers. Still, the film has a surprisingly open vision, and viewers are left to draw their own conclusions about a national way of life alien not just to Westerners, but to many modern Chinese. Curiosity value alone makes it well worth showcasing in fests and specialized venues.

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

The whole film is designed around a spectacular annual stadium event involving some 100,000 performers, mostly school kids, who spend months rehearsing gymnastic and artistic numbers. Half of them create elaborate human patterns on the field, while the other half sit elbow to elbow in the bleachers synchronizing colored flags to form amazing designs and lettering, something like a Times Square billboard changing digital images. The fact that the pixels are carefully trained children offers an inkling of North Korea’s philosophy of mass performance. 

Interestingly enough, it’s the clean-cut young Chinese prima donna Xiaonan (bright newcomer Liu Dong) who gets cast in the negative role of the brash, self-centered individualist. But after she’s forced to spend ten days in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang observing the masterful Yinshun (Jin Yulin), she learns that her dance doesn’t belong to herself alone and the true dancer melts into the group; or, as W.B. Yeats put it, “Who can tell the dancer from the dance?”

Though only two years her senior, Yinshun is the foster mother of a small boy and selflessly devotes her time to teaching others – including a group of women textile workers – the graceful art of movement. In contrast to Xiaonan’s impulsive spontaneity, she embodies a quiet, self-possessed dignity and a Zen-like detachment from her art.

Even her 7-year-old son, who bubbles over with happiness and joie de vivre, plays his tiny part in the mighty gymnastic extravaganza, which will be revealed in glorious color accompanied by a soaring musical crescendo in the final scenes. The strong documentary elements flash on Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia about the 1936 Olympics, with the significant difference that here the camera is kept at such a great distance, there is never any glorification of the human body or, indeed, of the single human being, but only a sense of the sheer power that comes from unity and coordinated effort when the individual disappears into the masses.

To music based on the patriotic folk song Arirang, this rather stunning visual display of national history and pride underscores the lesson far better than slogans about national liberation, which the two directors discreetly tuck into the odd moment. They also manage to mention the last World War in which Chinese volunteers aided the Korean army, in the story of a Chinese photographer who has come to Pyongyang to fulfill the wishes of his late grandfather. This little subplot, fraught with wild coincidences, should be chiefly of interest to older Chinese viewers.

The film also affords many glimpses of Pyongyang itself as a modern city on a river, whose glory lies in massive concrete structures like the May Day Stadium, rather than the skyscrapers of the South. The city’s vast public squares and fountains give way to a brief day in the bucolic countryside, where everyone dresses up for folk dancing. Needless to say, there’s no sign of poverty or hardship anywhere.

Though the storyline is as simple and linear as a children’s film, it’s pleasantly animated by Liu Dong, a soap-and-water beauty whose iPhone and track suit prove no match for lovely Jin Yulin’s demure tailoring and impressive gravitas. Playing her Korean love interest, Paio Zhengze is suitably handsome, reserved, and wise.

Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (Focus China Media Award section), June 19, 2012.
Production companies: Henan Film and TV Production Group, China Film Stellar Theater Chain, Korea Film StudioCast: Liu Dong, Jin Yulin, Piao Zhengze
Directors:  Xierzhati Yahefu, Kim Hyong-chol  
Screenwriters: Huang Dan, Kim Chun-won
Producers: Zong Shu-jie, Yan Ziao-ming, Han San-ping, Zhang Jia-rui, Paek Han-su
Directors of photography: Ge Ri-tu, Ryu Sung-cholProduction designers: Han Jin-feng, Ro Yong-Gil, An HyokSales Agent: Henan Film and TV Production Group Co
No rating, 91 minutes.