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Review: Meet in Pyongyang (North Korea/China, 2012)

This North Korean-Chinese co-production is a fascinating piece of political theater.

By , 14 Nov 14 21:08 UTC
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Dance of the sugar plum comrades.

Dance of the sugar plum comrades.

Yes, Virginia (Langley, perhaps?), a North Korean-Chinese joint production filmed in Pyongyang with Uighur and North Korean co-directors actually exists.

North Korean collaboration with international filmmakers is not unprecedented—the 1985 monster movie Pulgasari used a kidnapped South Korean director and Japan’s Toho studios, while 2012 saw Comrade Kim Goes Flying produced with Belgian and British assistance. However, it wasn’t until right before Comrade Kim’s release that North Korea and its longtime ally China successfully pushed out their first film together: Meet in Pyongyang. Directed by Xierzhati Yahefu (a member of China’s Uighur minority) and Kim Hyong-chol (a North Korean), Meet in Pyongyang deploys a well-mixed DPRK-PRC cast to tell a mostly lighthearted story of friendship tinged with hints of historical memory.

The film chronicles a ten-day cultural exchange trip that Wang Xiaonan (Liu Dong), a young Chinese woman who performs traditional Korean dance, takes to Pyongyang in an attempt to perfect her art. Upon arrival, Wang meets guide Kim Song-min (Pak Jong-taek), who introduces her to Kim Eun-sun (Kim Ok-rim), the slightly older female dancer Wang is supposed to learn from. Several conflicts then arise to drive the plot forwards. First, Eun-sun appears to neglect Wang, casting doubt on the exchange trip’s usefulness. Next, we learn Song-min has an unrequited love for Eun-sun. Finally, Eun-sun’s seven year-old son Jong-won (Kim Il-chol) struggles to reconcile his mother’s protectiveness and his own desire to perform in the Arirang Mass Games. Underneath this all is a semi-related subplot involving an incomplete photograph from the Korean War, most likely inserted to satisfy North Korean demands to play up the two countries’ Cold War comradeship.

As the film progresses, Wang mediates between all these issues and, in the process, learns about dance and self. Overall, this storyline is decently constructed, but would be utterly unexceptional if not set in North Korea. Some plot elements seem to be born from diplomatic compromise rather than a screenwriter’s pen, and thus Meet in Pyongyang plays it safe at the expense of dramatic panache. Truth be told, anyone who isn’t a North Korea watcher would be hard-pressed to enjoy the film.

However, as a piece for political analysis the film is fantastic. For instance, it contains exceptional night shots of Pyongyang, something that no doubt required immense coordination since Pyongyang’s buildings usually aren’t colorfully lit (if at all). Even more impressive is its specially filmed rendition of the Arirang Mass Games, one that would give scholars of Cold War China wet dreams—since when would you expect tens of thousands of North Korean schoolchildren to recreate the slogan “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China”? Yes, on the surface, we can see these sweeping shots and the film’s sanitized storyline as more examples of North Korean puffery. But beneath that is a far richer story, one of how exactly the Chinese managed to get this film off the ground.

In other words, a documentary about the process of making Meet in Pyongyang would be far more fascinating than the film itself. The diplomatic wrangling, the countless script revisions, the widening gulf in worldview between two uneasy allies—this is where the film’s real drama lies. There were several failed attempts to make a joint North Korean-Chinese film before this: what made this one different? What compromises were made? What plot elements were cut away or inserted, which lines of dialog were mandated?

Purely plot-wise, Meet in Pyongyang is as good as you’d expect a PRC-DPRK joint production to be, which is to say, not exceptionally good. Instead, the film partially redeems itself with context; its actresses’ demure performances onscreen belie an intense, offstage political theater. Sneaking into that backstage show will drive some to see this film, but not all.

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Meet in Pyongyang (Chinese: 平壤之約; Korean: 평양에서의 약속)—North Korea/China. Directed by Xierzhati Yahefu and Kim Hyong-chol. First released June 2012. Running time 1hr 35min. Starring Liu Dong, Kim Ok-rim, Pak Jong-taek, and Kim Il-chol.

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