Rightwing Film Geek

New Korean film-criticism star

I recently got the hands on the work of a great critic, destined to ranks among the Kaels, the Kauffmanns, the Sarrises. Only, this man also has a day job (making him perhaps the next Graham Greene). He also is the first major critic to come out of Korea, which makes him even more pertinent since that nation has spawned some of the world’s most interesting directors over the past decade — Kim Ki-duk, Park Chan-wook, Hong Sang-soo, Lee Myung-se, Lee Chang-dong and others. And I’m hoping now to introduce this important new critical voice to the increasingly diverse discourse on international cinema.

KimbookIt’s the Dear Leader himself …

The only thing I can say about it is that it’s the greatest gift I’ve ever received, for which I will never be able to repay Welshbud Dan Owen. It’s not the greatest in terms of monetary value or sentimental value or love from giver or any of that — it’s more in terms of the sheer perfect appropriateness of this gift. I’ll venture a guess that there is no human being in the world for whom the collected film criticism of Kim Jong-il was a more fitting gift.

Dan’s now living in Singapore and he told me a while back that he was gonna take a trip to North Korea. “Why … what are you gonna say when they ask whether your trip is business or pleasure … either answer is counter-revolutionary?” He asks me if there’s anything he can get me while he’s there, and I say “just a piece of Commie-kitsch. It’s not like there’s actually anything VALUABLE in North Korea.” When Dan got back, he e-mailed me “off to post the gift now … You will love it. Guaranteed.”


What’s incredible (and I really do mean that) about Kim’s “On the Art of the Cinema” and what makes it an achievement without parallel (I really do mean that too) is that manages at one and the same time to be absolutely hilarious and completely unreadable. That really is an “incredible achievement,” since hilarity usually requires readability, and a sane person cannot stomach more than two or three pages of Kim at a time. But damn if I ain’t looking forward to the next time I’m gonna pick it up.

I don’t remember whether I had told Dan this already, but one unhealthy time-wasting habit I have at work is reading dispatches from the Korean Central News Agency (technically work-related, I guess), the Communist government’s propaganda arm. I link to that because the Dear Leader’s magnum opus is not online, but the KCNA site gives a general sense of how this stuff is written that anybody else can check out. North Korean dispatches all read like they are written by the same awful, hyper-earnest, militancy-drunk, repetitive, adjective-addicted and zombified college student.

The lead headline as I write is “Kim Jong Il Provides Field Guidance to Tideland Reclamation Site on Taegye Islet” (to which I can’t set up a permalink …. that’s how advanced they are under Juche). Here is a sample from that KCNA article.

[Kim] highly estimated the feats performed by the builders intensely loyal to the Party for having built one of the great structures to shine forever with the Songun era by courageously overcoming difficulties and ordeals and displaying popular heroism and unparalleled devotion.

The nature-remaking project as gigantic as the West Sea Barrage has been completed by the builders in the main, he noted, adding that this is a precious fruition of the persevering will of the Korean people to build a great prosperous powerful nation in this land with their own efforts and technology at any cost and a striking demonstration of the inexhaustible mental power of the heroic Korean people single-mindedly united around the party.

It takes an act of will to think that anybody who should be writing in English or translating into English can think this anything but 200-proof crap. But the effect is sort of like what Andrew Sullivan describes as “hathos” — something so awful that you take pity on it and just enjoy its awfulness.

Here is a sample from the Kim book, taken from a page I just picked at random … page 193 (under the subhead, “Success in Acting Must Be Assured by Persistent Effort”).

KimTeamAmericaIn order to act realistically, in front of the camera the actor should live like the actual person he is portraying. To do this he has to acquire specialized knowledge of his own craft and a high degree of artistic skill, and he must be sure that he knows everything that his character has done. (VJM: I can scarcely type in this much without having gits and shiggles. And resisting mightily any jokes about being “so lonely.”)

A writer or painter needs to get to know a person and his life before he depicts him, and then to be able to portray him in words or sketches or paint, and that is enough. However, the actor not only needs to be familiar with the person and his life, he also needs to be able to act. A writer who is going to depict a football player imagines himself in his position and vividly expresses his thoughts and his actions when he is playing with the ball, and that is enough. The actor, however, has to actually become the football player himself and run, sweating, across the pitch to play the ball.

In order to serve the Party and the revolution faithfully, actors must have both a rich knowledge of life and a high degree of artistic ability. The actor is an artist who serves the Party and the revolution by creating outstanding new characters for different films. It is therefore absolutely essential for him to acquire an adequate knowledge of life and the artistic ability necessary to fulfill his mission and discharge his responsibilities satisfactorily.

Knowledge of life and artistic ability are the essential conditions for an actor to become a genuinely creative artist, and the fundamental criteria for assessing his quality as an artist. If he lacks a broad knowledge of life and a high degree of artistic ability, there is nothing to distinguish him from people who work in other spheres of activity in our society.

And on and on … in the same mind-numbing vein of aphorism, tautology, obviousness, self-regard and blahblahbloodyblah for 329 pages of utter tripe of the highest comic quality.

Thanks danbud.

July 6, 2009 - Posted by | Dan Owen, Kim Jong-il


  1. And it’s sirry/
    but not rirry/
    because it’s firring my rittle body with raaaaage…

    Comment by Dale Price | July 13, 2009 | Reply

  2. Heh glad you liked it, bud. I have a book of the movies of North Korea that I’ve yet to read, and also a couple of the Dear Leader’s books on Acting (I think), which is probably just a subset of the one I got you.

    I’ll try to remember to bring them to TIFF so you can have a looksy at them.

    Comment by Dan Owen | July 16, 2009 | Reply

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