Despite my intense academic interest in North Korea, I actually haven’t fully dived into the country’s cinema yet. Yes, I’ve seen documentaries filmed in North Korea like The Red Chapel and A State of Mind, and I previously reviewed the Chinese co-produced Meet in Pyongyang on this site. However, while I’ve read a fair amount about them, I haven’t watched a full-fledged, purely North Korean (read: not a co-production) film in its entirety until now, with Order Number 27.
Before I begin, here’s a little bit of context. North Korea actually has a non-negligible domestic film industry. Since 1949 it has churned out at least a couple films each year, significantly more than other nations like highly conservative Saudi Arabia, which didn’t start making features until the late 2000s. Dear Leader Kim Jong-il was also a huge film buff who purportedly had tens of thousands of movies in his private collection. As a result, he encouraged the development of North Korean film industry and even (supposedly) produced/wrote enough movies to have his own IMDB page. Kim Jong-il’s love for cinema was so fervent that he wrote a book called On the Art of the Cinema (which you can get off Amazon or find in Pyongyang’s tourist bookshops), and even kidnapped renowned South Korean director Shin Sang-ok to inject some new creative energy into the North’s fledgling cinema landscape.
Naturally, there are limits to what films can feasibly come out of North Korea’s repressive regime, and that makes reviewing films from the country a unique challenge. The natural expectation is for all North Korean films to be bombastic, dry propaganda, but from what I know, that isn’t 100% true. Even if it is, propaganda has value in itself —there’s good propaganda and bad propaganda, and propaganda is still a form of art.
Order Number 27 certainly has its propagandistic moments. Its plot is unsurprising for North Korea: it stars a detachment of Korean People’s Army soldiers on a secret mission to infiltrate and destroy South Korea’s general staff headquarters. There’s sporadic shoutouts to Kim Il-sung, and at many moments it glorifies the sacrifice of soldiers for “the fatherland”. Nevertheless, I’d say the movie is more entertainment than unbridled propaganda.
Order Number 27 is heavily reminiscent of an old Hong Kong kung fu flick—just swap triad members for KPA soldiers, and kung fu for taekwondo. The film is action-packed; well-choreographed martial arts jousts take up the vast majority of screentime. Sometimes the action is exaggerated, but this isn’t a huge problem. I’ve seen Hong Kong movies with far less believable fight scenes, and in fact whatever exaggeration does occur probably makes the movie all the more fun to watch.
The film’s cinematography and camera work is also quite commendable (and exceeds the level of most Hong Kong action flicks I’ve seen). Well-composed images come to life with competent camera motion, and certain shots, like that of the detachment mourning a comrade at dusk, are movingly beautiful. That mourning scene also brings out another one of the movie’s surprising strong points: its acting is actually not bad. The camaraderie and loss the soldiers experience appears genuine, which contrasts with the histrionics of people mourning Kim Jong-il’s death, for instance. While the movie’s actors, cameramen, and cinematographers probably got plaudits from the late Kim, I’d imagine the editors didn’t have it so good. Order Number 27‘s editing could definitely use a bit more work: there are many awkward rapid cuts, which detract from the piece’s other strengths.
Altogether, for a North Korean film, Order Number 27 is quite good, and it’s also freely available on YouTube (with English subtitles!) for anyone to see (I get the feeling the US government just turns a blind eye to North Korean IP protections). The movie’ s main perceived problem is that it’s North Korean; if you look in the peanut gallery of YouTube comments, you’ll see people just doling hate out of a knee-jerk reaction against the country. I personally don’t see that as a legitimate problem though. Just because something’s from North Korea doesn’t mean it’s automatically bad, like how not all Hollywood movies are automatically great.
The level of overt jingoism in Order Number 27 is honestly no higher than that in something like Chuck Norris’ The Delta Force; as far as I know, there are no long odes crying “death to America” in the piece’s stirring soundtrack. If you pretend the North Koreans are gangsters or cowboys, Order Number 27 would blend right in with all the other mass market rah-rah action/war movies of the 1980s. The movie isn’t highfalutin, meaningful art by any means. It’s regular entertainment: and in that regard it does very well, and I have no problem recommending it to general audiences who are willing to look beyond its national origins.
Order Number 27 (Korean: 명령 027호)—North Korea. Directed by Jung Ki-mo and Kim Eung-suk. First released 1986. Running time 1hr 17min. Starring Cha Sung-chol, Cho Yong-chol, and Han Pong-ho.