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Kim Jong-il’s Movie Mania

Monday, December 19th, 2011

Kim Jong-Il on the set of one of his “masterworks” in 1979

Kim Jong-il is dead; good riddance! But perhaps you don’t know that the late despot also fancied himself a superb filmmaker and theoretician, as evidenced by his remarkably self-referential (but then, is that really any surprise?) text On the Art of the Cinema, which he wrote – ahem – in 1973. Among numerous other rambling digressions, the text admonishes the reader that “the cinema is now one of the main objects on which efforts should be concentrated in order to conduct the revolution in art and literature. The cinema occupies an important place in the overall development of art and literature. As such it is a powerful ideological weapon for the revolution and construction. Therefore, concentrating efforts on the cinema, making breakthroughs and following up success in all areas of art and literature is the basic principle that we must adhere to in revolutionizing art and literature.” Is this, perhaps, a tad repetitive?

As S.T. Vanairsdale notes in Movieline, “Kim Jong-il, the reclusive North Korean leader who died Sunday at age 69, was a tyrant, a thug, a meddler, a menace, a fanatic, a spendthrift, a dilettante, and [was] responsible for some of the worst abuses witnessed by world civilization in the last half century. But enough about his movies.

The awfulness of Kim’s regime — its human-rights transgressions, its warmongering, its political ruthlessness — obviously cannot be overstated, and anyone who’s seen such bracing nonfiction fare as Yodok Stories (about DPRK concentration camp refugees who stage a musical about their lives), Kimjongilia (about surviving under the Dear Leader’s oppressive thumb) or The Red Chapel (about Kim’s sociocultural stranglehold on Pyongyang) knows full well about the nightmare that is life above the 38th Parallel.

And once you’ve got that out of the way, let’s reflect on that time when Kim — a notorious cinephile who had put an international assortment of filmmakers and other “cultural consultants” (read: political prisoners) to work as DPRK propagandists (several of whom wound up committing suicide) — kidnapped South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife Choi Eun-hee. Their mission: Help Kim establish North Korea as a force in world cinema. They did exactly that with Pulgasari, quite possibly the worst monster movie in the history of a genre absolutely choked with awful films.”

You can view a clip from Pulgasari here, if you really think you need to.

All kidding aside, the man was a monster, and I’m glad to see him go; I hope that whatever happens next in North Korea is better than what Kim brought to his people, which was a regime of terror, enslavement, and perpetual surveillance. However, it seems that his son Kim Jong-un will succeed him, so we’ll probably get more of the same — too bad.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him or his website,

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