Let me guess your first thought in reaction to this article: bu-huh?
As the dictator of a nuclear-armed nation, Kim Jong-il should be a busy man, preoccupied with weighty matters of state.
But a bizarre museum in Pyongyang suggests that the North Korean autocrat may reserve his greatest zeal for his biggest obsession: the movies.
The museum, located on the grounds of the country's biggest film studio, is a majestic 16-room ode to the 65-year-old Dear Leader's enthusiastic love of cinema. In every room, huge portraits show Mr. Kim overseeing every aspect of movie production in North Korea, from camera placement to scripting and acting.
The article goes on to describe Kim Jong-il's groundbreaking work on the film Sea of Blood, for which he innovated the idea of using more than one camera, and making the actors read the script a hundred times. It's a bizarre thing to imagine—almost as bizarre as the most advanced nation in the world electing a star of Hollywood westerns to lead them!
The funny thing is that Kim is not the first leader of an Asian nation to harbor filmmaking aspirations. In fact I think you could write a dissertation on the subject. Cambodia's Norodom Sihanouk, who was in power prior to Pol Pot and then assumed power again after Pot was deposed, was (and is!) a director. IMDB lists five films under his name, including See Angkor and Die (!!). In fact he has done more than that. According to David P. Chandler's book The Tragedy of Cambodian History, Sihanouk's hobby began in the 1940s and was reignited in 1965:
In 1965, Sihanouk revived a hobby he had taken up in the 1940s: making feature films. He may have been pushed into it by his envy of the success of an American production of Lord Jim made in Cambodia in 1964. The French director Marcel Camus, who had made a film in Cambodia in 1962 [L'Oiseau de paradis], also encouraged Sihanouk to move in this direction. Between 1965 and 1969 the prince wrote, cast, produced, and directed nine films. Because he had no formal cinematographic training, monopolized the stage, permitted no criticism, and listened to little advice, the films turned out to be amatuerish and self-indulgent.... The first of them, Aspara (The Goddess), was screened in May 1966 and starred Sihanouk, his wife, and Nhiek Tioulong [former Prime Minister of Cambodia] cast as a philanderer. The last two, Joir de vivre and Crépsuscule (Twilight), were screened in 1969.
Sihanouk screened Aspara at a time he was telling the nation to tighten its belt and get to work. The scenes of the film... included "Scene 5: A Facel Vega, driven by a pretty young woman; Scene 6: General Ritthi and Rattana get out of his Jaguar; Scene 10: Along a fine asphalted road... drives a black Cadillac convertable," and so on. As Charles Meyer has written, "Official vehicles, planes, ships, infantry, youth, ministers, generals, and officials... were all requisitioned for the needs of the production." Aspara, like Joir de vivre and Crépsuscule, depicted the raffish behavior of Sihanouk's circle. None of the films, including the ostensible historical ones, had any footage of ordinary people.
Perhaps Sihanouk was a formative influence on Kim; according to Chandler, when Sihanouk was exiled from Cambodia during the 1980s, he lived in North Korea and continued to make films there. He returned to the throne in Cambodia in the 90s—and made even more films! Best of all, he has his own website, where you can actually watch some of his films if you so desire. Kim Jong-il, meanwhile, has yet to dial up, so you'll have to just read the description of Sea of Blood in the article. More from that article:
The Dear Leader's fetish for film has only grown deeper since Sea of Blood. He is reputed to have a personal collection of some 20,000 videotapes, including The Godfather, Rambo, and every James Bond film ever made.
In the early 1970s he wrote a 329-page guide for filmmakers, entitled On the Art of the Cinema, which is still on the shelves of North Korean book stores today.
"Begin on a small scale and end grandly," he tells filmmakers in the book. "Conflicts should be settled in accordance with the law of class struggle. ... Show the new noble lives of the backward characters after their re-education. ... A film should always demonstrate that the revolution is continuing and that the struggle is being pursued ever more vigorously."
In the late 1970s, Mr. Kim fulfilled his film obsession by serving as director of the North Korean Bureau of Propaganda and Agitation. And in 1978, in one of the most bizarre episodes of North Korean history, his agents reportedly kidnapped a South Korean film actress and her director husband, imprisoning them and forcing them to produce propaganda films for North Korea until they finally escaped.
Kim's love of cinema, coupled with his propagandist insistence, recalls China's infamous Jiang Qing— Mao's wife, so-called "White-Boned Demon," and part of the Gang of Four. Qing was an actress prior to getting into politics. In the early 50s she took on a position within the government as part of the Film Steering Committee of the Ministry of Culture, according to Craig Dietrich's book People's China: A Brief History. During her tenure she singled out a film called The Life of Wu Xun, based on a Chinese folk hero who rose from poverty to wealth, then used his fortune to create schools for the poor. The film was deemed anti-Marxist and newspapers began printing lengthy criticisms of the film and the real-life nineteenth-century subject. According to Dietrich:
Wu Xun was unmasked as a wrongheaded, idealistic reformer who imagined that education and reform could save China. Marxism taught that only revolutionary class struggle could truly change society. Thus, the film violated proletarian thinking. There could be no defense of it as being apolitical. Filmmakers had no right to indulge in private expression. A person "is either progressive or reactionary—there is no third way."
The maker of The Life of Wu Xun was ultimately driven to publish a self-criticism in the People's Daily. According to wikipedia, "During the Cultural Revolution, Wu Xun was attacked as a supporter of "feudal education." Red Guards exhumed his corpse and carried it to a public square where it was subsequently given a trial and ordered burned. Red Guards broke the body into pieces before lighting it with gas."
Kinda puts my loathing of Dreamgirls into perspective. Could you imagine if the Bush Administration hated the upcoming Across the Universe so much that they exhumed the body of John Lennon and immolated it?
And now that you've read this post, let me guess your reaction: bu-huh? I came here cuz I wanted to read about Feist and turntables! Pretty goes with pretty , folks. Pretty goes with pretty.