When I traveled to North Korea last summer, I talked with one of my guides, Ms. Pak, about movies. A friend of mine had asked me to bring a DVD of Comrade Kim Goes Flying back for him, and I asked Ms. Pak where I could buy a copy.
“Sorry, I don’t know,” she said. “But have you seen The Flower Girl? It is our country’s most beloved and renowned film! It won many international awards, and it was also very famous in China. Surely you have watched it?”
Unfortunately, at the time I hadn’t, and Ms. Pak gently chided me in response.
“You must watch it. It is a very good film.”
Well, Ms. Pak, now I’ve watched it. Do I think it’s a “good film”? Well…let’s get to that later.
Though some of the facts North Korean tour guides quote may be BS, Ms. Pak was pretty spot-on with her pitch about The Flower Girl. Adapted in 1972 from a revolutionary opera of the same name, The Flower Girl is perhaps North Korea’s most renowned film. Both the film and the opera toured across China and other Eastern Bloc countries; during the Cultural Revolution, Chinese audiences found the film so popular that some theaters even screened it on 24-hour cycles due to high ticket sales. In a rare accomplishment for North Korean cinema, The Flower Girl also won a special prize at the 1972 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in Czechoslovakia.
Today, The Flower Girl occupies a prominent place in North Korean culture, though whether this is out of popular desire or top-down government policy is still up in the air. The lead actress appeared on the 1992 series one-won banknote, and if you visit the Pyongyang Film Studio, there’s a statue near the entrance depicting Kim Il-sung standing amongst the film’s cast and crew. Many North Koreans (and older Chinese) are apparently quite familiar with the movie’s numerous songs (which as far as revolutionary songs go, aren’t half-bad); you could say that The Flower Girl is like a North Korean Sound of Music.
The Sound of Music analogy only goes so far though. While The Flower Girl is filled with music, it is based on a revolutionary opera after all. Therefore, The Flower Girl‘s essence is proletarian revolution. Set during the Japanese colonial period, its protagonist is a girl named Kotpun who sells flowers (thus “flower girl”) in order to buy medicine for her sick mother. Kotpun’s life is replete with tragedy–besides her ailing mother and long-dead father, she has a blind younger sister and an older brother who’s been imprisoned by the Japanese. To make matters worse, Kotpun and her family are all destitute peasants under the servitude of a heartless landlord and his witch-like wife. As she hawks her flowers on the streets of a nearby town, Kotpun sings a stirring song of woe. “Buy flowers, red flowers,” she warbles, “If you kindly buy them, spring will come even to aching hearts.”
This setup isn’t particularly innovative when it comes to revolutionary operas, which can be quite formulaic. Pioneered and perfected by the Chinese Communists, the formula proceeds roughly as follows: introduce poor peasants who live under the oppressive yoke of evil landlords, do something to make their lives even more depressing, and then have some long-lost relation from the revolutionary army swoop in and save the day. The Flower Girl ticks off all of this formula’s checkboxes; if you compare it to something like China’s The White Haired Girl, the similarities are immense.
The trick to these revolutionary operas, then, is how they dole out their depression and darkness. We all know that the Eighth Route Army or Korean Revolutionary Army will appear in some form or another at the end, but how does the film get to that point? While The Flower Girl does heavily follow the revolutionary opera framework, it does keep us guessing to a certain extent who, when, and how tragedy will befall its myriad characters. Though its plot progression is relatively choppy, it uses its two hour running time to flesh out characters that audiences can sympathize with. This highlights the strongest point of The Flower Girl–when something happens to our protagonists, it convinces you to feel for them.
Compared to other North Korean films, The Flower Girl is also quite light on overt propaganda. While the characters of Order Number 27 praise Great Leader Kim Il-sung at multiple junctures, Kim’s name isn’t mentioned at all in The Flower Girl‘s dialog (though plot-wise this would be difficult anyways, considering it’s set in a time before Kim’s reign). Though proletarian revolution is a constant undercurrent, there really isn’t any regime or country specific advocacy until the last five minutes of the film, when the inevitable “liberation” occurs and we’re treated to a monologue on why Korea needs to throw off the chains of Japanese and capitalist oppression. This partially explains why the film was so popular outside of Korea–for the most part, its messages are universal and its characters’ struggles are identifiable to millions around the world (at least within the Eastern Bloc).
So is The Flower Girl a “good movie”? To answer that question, we could start by putting “good movie” in context. Is The Flower Girl an art house film? No. Is it a big budget Hollywood blockbuster? Obviously not. Is it something that people with an appreciation for Cold War history would enjoy? Definitely.
However, maybe context is too much. At a basic level, you can judge a film, whether it’s from North Korea or not, on the quality of its acting, plot, and visuals, among other elements. From this viewpoint, The Flower Girl isn’t smashingly exceptional, but it is still quite commendable. Altogether, its acting feels relatively natural and not stereotypically forced; its plot, though not particularly novel, possesses enough drama to tug at audiences’ heartstrings. I won’t argue with Ms. Pak’s declaration that The Flower Girl is North Korea’s most “beloved and renowned film” though, granted, it doesn’t have too much competition for the title.
Note: If you want to watch this movie, it’s actually available for free in its entirety on an official North Korean government YouTube channel (not kidding, they actually have one).
The Flower Girl (Korean: 꽃파는 처녀)–North Korea. Directed by Choe Ik-kyu. First released September 1972. Running time 2hr 7min. Starring Hong Yong-hui Hong, Han Chon-sob, Ko So-am, Kim Ren-rin Kim, and Ru Hu-nam.