EVERY REVOLUTIONARY REGIME needs a master narrative. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet people were bombarded with tales of the storming of the Winter Palace and the bitter struggle to win the revolutionary civil war. At the heart of this narrative was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who announced soon after the revolution that ‘for us Bolsheviks, the cinema is the most important of the arts’. Film was thus drawn into the service of the Soviet project. It was used to immortalize the heroic revolution by turning it into a grand visual tale, affirming the righteousness of the Bolsheviks’ cause and the grandeur and drama of the founding of their revolutionary state.
Bolshevik agitation groups took films to Russian villages where delighted, illiterate peasants watched them projected on to sheets strung up between poles or illuminated against the sides of buildings. In the 1920s, Soviet citizens in town and countryside could watch the historical epics of directors Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, and relive the dramatic taking of Soviet power in their own locality. By the 1930s, the rise of Stalinism, together with Stalin’s personal passion for the cinema, allowed the Soviet film industry to produce great revolutionary epics, ideological adventure films depicting the exploits of the Red Guards of 1917 or the valiant Red soldiers of the civil war.
These dramatic films, whose release often coincided with the anniversaries of notable Soviet accomplishments, provided ‘living’, emotionally powerful examples of mass sacrifice and dedication, as well as revolutionary guidance from the Communist Party’s exalted leaders. Soviet cinema produced the first revolutionary films in the world, setting a shining example for other one-party communist states to follow. It did so in three distinct ways. First, Soviet cinema signalled that the primary subject for socialist films should be specific glorious moments in the recent revolutionary past, thus combining a comforting nostalgia with a stirring, heroic narrative. Second, it ensured that the ‘retrospective gaze’ uniquely provided by film would be simultaneously immortalized and ‘modernized’, brought into the present day and made relevant to the future building of socialism. In order to move forward, Soviet film directors told their audiences they first had to look back for examples and inspiration. Third, this ‘history film’ linked the great foundation of the revolutionary state to its increasingly deified leaders, Lenin and his loyal follower, Stalin.
Following the liberation of Korea from Japan in 1945 and the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, this model of Soviet culture, along with economic and social blueprints, was exported to the Soviet Union’s new eastern ally, and a vibrant North Korean cinema industry was quickly established. In 1947 a National Film Production Centre was opened in Pyongyang under the guidance of the young leader Kim Il-sung. With finance and expertise provided by the Soviet Union, the new North Korean state began disseminating its revolutionary message cinematically to its impressionable citizens. Awestruck, illiterate peasants, this time Korean, once again flocked to village halls and squares to witness this new visual wonder. But the North Korean regime’s radical message went beyond historical facts and ‘new’ film images; it was dramatized into an inspiring revolutionary story which, like Soviet films of the Stalin period, featured working-class heroes galvanized by the example and guidance of the Great Leader himself.
From the beginning, Korean revolutionary films closely resembled the cinema of late ‘high’ Stalinism in their visual constructions, didacticism and overt promotion of the leader. In 1948, three decades after Lenin had proclaimed cinema to be the ‘most important’ revolutionary medium, North Korea produced its first feature film, My Home Town. Soviet films of the late 1940s idealised the Russian landscape, the rural way of life and the chaste spirit of the Russian peasantry, often celebrating the return of demobilized Red Army soldiers to help rebuild the local infrastructure following wartime devastation. North Korean films took this cinematic model and adapted it to fit the needs of their own embryonic revolutionary regime. The North Korean leadership, after all, had inherited a country still reeling from the trauma of over three decades of brutal Japanese occupation, compounded by the ravages of the Second World War.
As Charles K. Armstrong has shown in his book The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950, the film My Home Town embodies the spirit of socialist pastoralism, based on a lyrical, rustic ideal. It sets the model for future North Korean cinema with its celebration of historic socialist accomplishment. It also launches one of the two principal subjects for the Korean cinematic foundation narrative in the story of the valiant and ultimately victorious anti-Japanese struggle of ‘revolutionary guerrilla fighter’ Kim Il-sung in 1930s Manchuria. The imagery and storyline of this film extol the socialist struggle for the motherland, unswerving devotion to the new state and the enlightened role of General Kim Il-sung. With its opening shots of sacred Mount Baekdu, long, lyrical shots of forests, fields and streams, and its rousing tale of two young revolutionary fighters whose families suffered utter ignominy under the Japanese, My Home Townestablishes a canonical cinematic narrative. The film’s heroes not only suffer the indignity of imprisonment for engaging in revolutionary discussion and education but with almost superhuman strength, they overcome their Japanese prison guards with their bare hands. Subsequently, they join Kim Il-sung’s guerrilla fighters in the Manchurian border region in a dramatic battle to overthrow their Japanese oppressors.
My Home Town also establishes a link between past revolutionary struggle and present political achievement with its climax on 15 August 1945, the day of liberation from the Japanese yoke. In the spirit of Soviet films, inter-titles explain that this was the moment when ‘patriotic General Kim Il-sung overthrows Japanese imperialism and liberates the Fatherland’. Following Soviet cinematic convention, the film’s liberated hero travels to Pyongyang, the seat of the new revolutionary government, to meet leader Kim Il-sung himself. Not only do such scenes echo the ‘unforgettable meetings’ between Soviet heroes and Stalin that were intrinsic to Soviet cultic film, they also show the personal benefits revolution can bring to the formerly oppressed: the hero’s final return to his hometown is as a government official, smartly dressed in a suit.
In an echo of numerous examples of late Stalinist cinema, the film closes with melodramatic, close-up images of the hero’s mother’s face, emphasizing her joy at the return of her ‘transformed’ son, whose dedication and abilities have been officially recognized. Lastly, with a backdrop of bright, sentimental images of smiling peasants and long shots of an eternal Korean landscape, the film’s dialogue points out that the benefits gleaned by the hero and his family are a gift not just from the regime but also from Kim Il-sung himself. The Stalinist ‘economy of the gift’ is transposed faithfully to the Soviet Union’s Korean disciples ...
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