The Juche Idea

The Juche Idea


Reviewed by: Chris

“Creativity is an attribute of social man who transforms the world and shapes his destiny purposefully and consciously. By virtue of his creativity, man transforms nature and society to be more useful and beneficial to him by changing the old and creating the new.”

It doesn’t sound too controversial. The artist can consciously or unconsciously influence the world, for good or bad. It may be to uphold or challenge social norms, such as marriage and family values. Or it may be more political, to give moral support to the troops or propound a specific ideology. When combined with a culture of censorship, whether legally-enforced or effected by market and cultural hubris, the effect is greatly multiplied.

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Extreme cases of Marxist or Nazi propaganda are offensive to Western sensibilities, but the issue is rarely discussed in depth unless forced upon us.

Take the repressive regime of North Korea. The quotation at the beginning of this review is part of the official ideology called Juche (pronounced choo-CHAY). Reading the philosophy of Juche, one cannot but be impressed by its noble purpose. Its infusion of moral goodness into the arts. Its wondrous leadership potential. So how is North Korea seemingly so inescapably fucked up?

Jim Finn’s awkwardly placed film is unsettling by its approach as well as its subject matter. It seems to be a documentary about a media studies student completing a residency in North Korea. How did she get there? Her background is mixed. She spent her formative years in South Korea, and time in America, before settling in Japan. Her work on arts projects and video has enabled her to secure a place in a North Korean establishment where she learns to make films in accordance with Juche.

Her own political views are very mixed. The US is “always invading or threatening to invade someone.” She finds some good ideas, from a technical point of view, in Juche Theory, but struggles to implement them to her tutor’s standards. She must try harder to make films that “speak to the workers” and not to an “artistic elite.” Her underlying objective is to learn about and then give a true idea of Juche and its role in the development of cinematic ideas.

The North Korean academics are equally interested in her work in ‘capitalist’ countries. What’s it like, making a film there? Like building your own boat on a bay, she says. People are very helpful and contribute timber and advice. But when it’s launched no-one notices cos they’re all watching the cruise ship spread its bilge. About Kim Jong Il (who is apparently a film fanatic, not just a despot), she explains that, in the West, “of course, he’s stereotyped – with some basis in reality.”

But even as I was appreciating the remarkable insight into a closed kingdom, I still had doubts. How did all this filming get in – and then get out again? Who exactly was this student? I felt as if I had missed an essential first five minutes.

But I hadn’t. The film is a re-creation, with original footage produced entirely within the USA. Added to the confusing mix are avant-garde techniques and language lesson videos (‘English as a Capitalist Language’ and ‘English as a Socialist Language’). Does this reduce its value? Perhaps not. Clips of mass celebration dances are from official North Korean sources. The quotations from Juche, frequently appearing on the screen, are authentic. Travelogue it ain’t. Off-beat study of an off-beat cinematic closed circuit it certainly is.

In the mid Sixties, Kim Jong Il adapted his father's Juche philosophy to propaganda, film and art. Translated as self-reliance, Juche is like a mixture of Confucian and authoritarian Stalinist pseudo-socialism. Excellence in film themes and stories is judged partly on how well they portray Juche, since this is unquestioningly accepted as the most enlightened approach. For instance, “conflicts should always be settled in accordance with the law of class struggle.” Or, “There are no negative people in socialist society.” Its high-minded (if rather arrogant) approach reminds me a little of the Hays Code (censorship guidelines) that governed US filmmaking from 1934 to 1968. Except that the moral code of Juche seems to be universally respected within North Korea (and it does also look very much more philosophically coherent than the rather patchwork Hays Code). Certain precepts seem almost to contain a Judeo-Christian crossover: “A negative person must always be led to repent of his mistake and take the right road.”

It would be easy to become enraptured by Juche Theory, even if it is a bit restrictive. Examples of good poetry and good cinema seem to suggest that it works. The sad reality is that, like communism, it sounds great but is a disaster in practice. The concentration on ‘message’ eventually makes for sameness in even the most colourful of creations.

One of the most dramatic state clips is of ‘Flesh Ring in Sea of Blood.’ ('Sea of Blood' is a North Korean expression for capitalist aggression.)

My overall feeling was that North Korea is not as unsophisticated as we might think. That we tend to trivialise or stereotype it just as it stereotypes us. The film seems to be a very worthwhile project that at least scratches the surface. Yet it also gets a bit monotonous and its ambiguous ‘documentary’ status niggled me throughout. It is also an unusual and chic example of how elegant ideology often bears no resemblance to the reality upon which it has inflicted itself.

Reviewed on: 05 Jul 2008
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Deconstruction of the North Korean official state ideology.

Director: Jim Finn

Year: 2008

Runtime: 62 minutes

Country: USA


EIFF 2008
Leeds 2008

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