Review: The Great North Korean Picture Show



It is tough to surmise my reactions for the theatrical release of The Great North Korean Picture Show. (Lynn and James released the first version for East 101 for Al Jareeza network earlier.)

I went into the show with the scantest presumptions of North Korea. Just a few days before the screening I had stumbled upon a Ted Talk delivered by Hyeonseo Lee on her escape from North Korea and watched it while she shared her experiences getting out of the country. Pictures of starving children and the famous darkened map of North Korea unlit with the lack of electricity flooded my mind as I sat down, waiting for the documentary to start.

The directors had been quite adamant on informing viewers many disclaimers that went into making this documentary. Most documentaries, you will find directors as intrusive as the ones you find here in The Great North Korean Picture Show. Though I appreciate how the filmmakers had wanted this to be as credible film as possible, this intrusive knowledge had heightened my own perception of the standard of censorship in North Korea. I hadn’t wanted to come to watch this film to again, reinforce what we already have perceived North Korea to be.


Before I even begin to dismiss the film, the beauty of documentaries kick. Despite the distracting disclaimers, it actually heightened the message the filmmakers wanted to show to us through this documentary – that these people that they had the privilege of spending time with – that the North Koreans are still human after all.

To me, the documentary seemed to be like a beautiful courtship between the filmmakers and North Korea. Filmmakers were match made to meet with prospective, interested partner (North Korea’s film industry) by the guardian. Of course, with a date set up by the match maker, the first date the filmmaker had were mete with eagerness to share their vibrant personality, and yet cautious with sharing too much. Progressively with each date (spanning over months of arrangements), they get comfortable with each other and more and more sides of the date start to reveal itself.

Intentional or not, I think it is a wise decision for the directors to focus on documenting an industry and culture of North Korea that they are very proud of – their film industry. Through documenting and interview various people involved in, or wanting to be part of the film industry in North Korea, it is inevitable that we are granted the rare privy into the lives of the citizens of North Korea.


Although how refreshing the documentary is from detracting from our very crude impression of North Korea, I still have my doubts. I am still watching young budding actors on screen – actors who have been trained to do what they do for a living – act. Even if we were given privy into their own personal lives and a peek into what they think and how they behave, I still wonder if they are truly had let their guard down for the camera to capture them as it is, or were they carrying on an act.

Overall, it is a fascinating documentary. Though the theatrical version may have finished its run during the SEAFF 2013, you may watch the shorter, newsy version that was first aired on Al Jareeza.



Review by Yiz

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