As with all good things, this was something well worth the wait. It was in 2008 where documentary filmmakers James Leong and Lynn Lee presented Homeless FC during that year's Singapore International Film Festival, and since then a number of film projects have surfaced, including their first narrative feature length film Camera, amongst other documentaries, but nothing had been put up on the big screen until now. The Great North Korean Picture Show made its debut late last year at the Dubai International Film Festival, and others abroad, before finally coming home to screen in front of a full house. There could be more screenings given the overwhelming response and subject matter that piques one's curiosity, so stay tuned for an encore either under this festival, or one of many to come this year.
Shot in four separate trips to the reclusive state and given unprecedented access behind the iron curtain, The Great North Korean Picture Show, as a title, plays on the phrase in two ways, that the subject matter was primarily about the state of filmmaking in North Korea given that it was widely known that the late Kim Jong Il was a fanatical film buff, while on the other hand suggests that everything our documentary filmmakers had captured, had been fabricated from the onset, that despite being on the ground, there's nothing that's already vetted and approved by the powers that be. You're left to your own devices to figure things out, whether some scenes and interaction with the North Koreans may be too rote, or articifical for your liking, but really it's anyone's guess.
The central plot, if I may call it that in a documentary, follows 2 actors and 1 apparently famous North Korean director, where we get to see glimpses of some of their personal, and professional moments. While you may come to expect the usual pro-country, nationalistic views that everyone seems to be wearing on their sleeves, especially since the actors hail from the elite acting academy and may be just putting on a facade their acting skills have already honed over the years, it's a tad unique to hear their views about films and filmmaking, where they deem it as a high honour to be able to make propaganda films, seeing it as a social responsibility rather than doing it for fame and other capitalist gains. Things are really cleanly divided into two hear, that if you're not with us, you're against us type of argument, and I suppose there's no other way to achieve these thoughts other than conditioning since young.
What was more interesting, was when James Leong and Lynn Lee were allowed access to a film set where the director Pyo Hang was working on a film project in production, and being the personality that he is, makes it compelling viewing that perhaps in some aspects still, the human spirit and its playfulness are hard to suppress. There's a scene that spoke volumes, where Pyo Hang was trying his best to get a shot of soldiers who had to weep and display exaggerated actions of anguish at defeat, but what he got was a bunch of giggling extras who found it difficult to get into the mood for the sombre scene. And these are not actors mind you, but real soldiers from the North Korean army being seen to monkey around for a bit on set, outside of the tight discipline that we'd see in many precision marches or display of military might..
It is subtle scenes like this, that made The Great North Korean Picture Show such a compelling film to watch, to be on the constant lookout for clues to a seemingly more normal life than one under oppression. And while it's rare that the filmmakers' camera was allowed to pan wider and linger around longer in many scenes - there were many tight shots that made it to the film - you'll always appreciate once it does, to gaze at everything in background just to catch up on a little bit more on what things actually look like inside the reclusive country. Sans any voiceovers, James and Lynn utilize subtitles to narrate happenings and issues they had faced, for instance, in needing to reshoot some scenes inside the film museum because of innate rules pertaining to shots of the Kims, and their framed sayings. There's really no better way than to watch this film with the filmmakers' attendance.
One may think that in exchange for permission to shoot where they had shot in North Korea, or Pyongyang specifically, may mean that the filmmakers had traded their filmmaking integrity for it. The good thing is that the filmmakers didn't have to resort to that, and neither was the intention. From the onset, there were clear rules, as expected, to adhere to, and I suppose it was plain human condition that respect cuts both ways, and with each agreement to keep within the rules, greater access was granted. And what was more of a surprise, as Lynn Lee explained during a post-screening Question and Answer Session, was that no footage got confiscated, but returned with an advisory on what cannot be used. There was absolutely no interference in the final cut of the film, and in some ways, I felt that it demonstrated the censors in country were surprisingly more trusting than even those back home. And that coming from a country where communications and media are even more highly regulated and controlled.
Arguably Singapore's most successful documentary filmmakers today, James Leong and Lynn Lee once again have a gem in their hands, and with the film travelling the festival circuit, do keep a look out for it, to peer into footage never seen before, and access to a unique filmmaking process.