PYONGYANG, North Korea — An international film festival opens Thursday in what may seem the unlikeliest of places: North Korea.
Held every two years, the Pyongyang International Film Festival offers North Koreans their only chance to see a wide array of foreign films on the big screen — from Britain, Germany and elsewhere (but not America). And it's the only time foreigners are allowed into North Korean theaters to watch movies alongside locals.
This year, festivalgoers will get the chance to see two feature films shot in North Korea but edited overseas: the romantic comedy "Comrade Kim Goes Flying," a joint North Korean-European production, and "Meet in Pyongyang," made in conjunction with a Chinese studio.
While it's true that homegrown movies predictably tend toward Communist propaganda with a healthy dose of tear-jerker, North Korea is a film-crazy country. Well-to-do residents pay as much as 500 won (about $5 according to official exchange rates) to see new releases from the government-run Korean Film Studio, as well as Russian and Chinese imports.
Those who don't have the means to go to the theater tune into the Mansudae TV channel, which shows mostly Chinese and Eastern European films on weekends. Some recent offerings have included "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and the only western offering shown on state TV in recent memory, the British film "Bend It Like Beckham," which aired in 2010.
This year, a huge screen in front of the Pyongyang train station has become another popular place to watch movies. On Monday, hundreds of locals stood transfixed by a North Korean drama in a plaza in front of the station.
The late leader Kim Jong Il, who died in December, was a notorious film buff.
He was 7 when he saw his first film — "My Hometown" — the inaugural film made at by the Korean Film Studio. The film, about a young man who returns to his village after Korea is liberated from Japan, made a lifelong impression on the future leader, according to Choe Hung Ryol, director of the studio's external affairs department.
In 1973 Kim published a treatise called "On the Art of the Cinema," in which he extolled filmmaking as a way to aid the people's "development into true communists."
"Creative work is not a mere job, but an honorable revolutionary task," he wrote.
In 1978, Kim "recruited" a South Korean director, Shin Sang-ok, and his actress ex-wife, Choi Eun-hee. According to the late director's memoirs, he was lured to Pyongyang to make propaganda films, but he and his wife slipped away from their bodyguards during a 1986 trip to Vienna.
Kim's father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, also wrote a film called "The Flower Girl," and current leader Kim Jong Un also has a keen interest in film, according to Korean Film Studio spokesman Choe .
In an interview with The Associated Press, Choe acknowledged that the main purpose of North Korean cinema is propaganda.
"Our films carry a different purpose than movies made in other countries," he said. "We make films for the purpose of ideological education."
And to play with the emotions of the audience, evidently.
"If you watch a lot of North Korean films, you'll find yourself crying a lot," he said. "If you don't cry, you're clearly a person without emotion."
A visit to the film studio is a lot like going back in time, from the thatched cottages of a bygone rural Korea, to the ancient royal palaces of the Choson Dynasty, to a louche depiction of 1950s South Korea compete with brothels, pubs and pharmacies.
"American tourists who come here always tap the walls to see if the buildings are real," Choe said. "They say the sets in Hollywood are just facades."
For British filmmaker Nicholas Bonner and his Belgian co-producer Anja Daelemans, the upcoming North Korean premiere of "Comrade Kim Goes Flying" will be a moment nearly seven years in the making.
The film, a romantic comedy about a coal miner who dreams of becoming an acrobat, was shot in North Korea in 2010 with a local cast, directed by veteran North Korean filmmaker Kim Gwang Hun, and edited in Belgium.
"It's not what you expect from North Korea, and it's not something people have seen before," he said.
Writing the script took three years, as the North Korean and European members of the team worked to come up with a story line that was both entertaining and politically safe for showing in North Korea. Bonner credits his the Koreans with contributing some of the film's funniest moments
"In the end, you're dealing with professionals," Bonner said. "They do their job. You're in the film world, and we're all making a film."
But for sheer scale, "Comrade Kim" can't possibly compete with the heavyweight of North Korean cinema, the 63-part epic "Nation and Destiny," which began in the 1990s. Filming is already under way on part 64.
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