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French moviegoers get rare glimpse at life in reclusive North Korea

2008/01/10 | Permalink | Source

The plot is predictable, the acting is maudlin and the ideology is spread on thick, but "The Schoolgirl's Diary" has something most B-movies don't, according to Associated Press.

The first North Korean film ever distributed commercially in the West, it provides a rare, if sugarcoated, glimpse at daily life in one of the world's most secretive and repressive nations.

"The Schoolgirl's Diary" ("Han nyeohaksaengeui ilgi", in Korean) is the story of a rebellious high schooler who questions her parents' values. Soo Ryun rails against her absentee father, a scientist who puts the good of the nation before that of his family, and her hardworking, submissive mother.

Screenwriters reportedly got help drafting the script from North Korea's reclusive and autocratic leader Kim Jong Il, who wields absolute power, tolerates no dissent and demands unquestioning allegiance from his people.

It's not giving too much away to say that the misguided heroine, played by 18-year-old Pak Mi Hyang, is brought back into the fold just in time for a tearful conclusion.

Still, what it lacks in surprises, the film makes up for in sheer novelty value.

North Korea's state-controlled film industry makes a handful of movies a year, most of them barely watchable vehicles for official propaganda.

Only a few of them have ever been seen outside the country. Last month's French premiere of "The Schoolgirl's Diary" marked the first time a North Korean movie has ever hit movie theaters outside those in a few friendly communist countries, like China and Cuba, said Antoine Coppola, the author of several books on Korean cinema.

"North Korea feels it's misunderstood", Coppola said in a telephone interview. "This is the regime's way of communicating with the world, their way of setting the record straight".

North Korea has long had a tense relationship with neighbors South Korea and Japan and with the West. In 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush famously lumped North Korea into an "axis of evil" with Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, though relations with Washington have improved somewhat since the country agreed to dismantle its nuclear program.

The country still draws fire from human rights advocates, who denounce its use of the death penalty, even for political crimes, its detention of tens of thousands of political prisoners, the torture of people who try to flee abroad and severe restrictions of freedom of expression and religion.

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