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From Pyongyang with Love
By Yao Min-G

The first North Korean film coproduction with any country is a warm, apolitical story about a fashionable young Chinese dancer who visits Pyongyang and learns to dance to a different tune. Yao Min-G reports.

The film "Meet in Pyongyang" ends with an eight-minute clip of the Arirang mass games with 60,000 performers. The spectacle was recreated especially for this first movie coproduction by China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

It's also the first foreign coproduction for North Korea and it's expected to be released throughout China next month.

The film, which downplays politics and highlights culture through the exchange of two young dancers, sheds light on the mysterious and to outsiders, little-known way of life in modern Pyongyang.

The Arirang Games is the main attraction of the country's two-month Arirang Festival that draws millions of foreign tourists every year between August and October. The huge performance features more than 100,000 citizens, some of whom are selected and trained as young as five years old to form a 90-minute synchronized propaganda display of gymnastics, dance, acrobatics, human pixels and dramatic performances. The show promotes socialist ideas and is accompanied by music mainly based on a patriotic folk song called "Arirang," popular throughout the Korean Peninsula and in China.

The coproduction, to the surprise of many observers, was not a political assignment from either government. Out of the eight investors, all from China, three are state-run and five are private production companies. Their North Korean partner is the country's state-run Art Film Studio.

"Our final script and final film passed all rounds of censorship in both countries instantly, with only one suggestion from the Chinese censors," Li Shuihe, the initiator and producer of the movie tells Shanghai Daily in a telephone interview.

"They showed the films to young Chinese, who really love the mass games at the end, so they suggested that we could add some more. We extended it from three to the current eight minutes. That was the only change."

Li is a veteran Chinese filmmaker and now general manager of Beijing Jiuzhou Distribution Co, one of the film's investors. He has attended the Pyongyang Film Festival since 2006, which inspired him to ask for approval of a coproduction by the two countries.

"North Korean studios can make about 20 movies every year, and they love Chinese movies and TV dramas, which are almost the only foreign ones they can see, apart from a handful of former Soviet films," he says.

"Their favorites are films that promote values similar to theirs, the ideas of truth, kindness and fairness and making sacrifices for the greater good."

Li's list of North Korean's favorites include a lot of zhu xuan lu films, or "main melody" propaganda movies that are uplifting and promote the same values.

"Meet in Pyongyang" also has such moments, as talented young Chinese dancer Wang Xiaonan (played by newcomer Liu Dong) is sent, reluctantly on her part, to learn "the soul of the Arirang dance" on a 10-day exchange in North Korea. Wang, a fashionable young woman, arrives with her iPhone, which doesn't work in North Korea.

She learns from talented dancer Kim Yin Shun (played by Kim Yu Lin), who is two years her senior and has a 7-year-old adopted son. Kim is a real-life dancer, not an actress, who has visited China and other countries. She also takes Wang to her suburban hometown to observe and learn traditional Korean dance, performed by farmers.

Visitor Wang does see truth, kindness and fairness, as well as sacrifices on the part of the young North Korean dancer and realizes that she needs to blend into the group, rather than stand out.

The film is not the propaganda that many people would expect, however, since it doesn't make even implied judgments on the way of life in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

Li says one of the initial guidelines from authorities in both countries was "neither glorify nor denigrate either country."

The other two guidelines were to make a film enjoyable to people in both countries and to respect the political and social systems of both countries. Chinese authorities also reminded the Chinese film crew to respect opinions from the North Korean side.

That was easier said than done, leading to numerous exchanges and changes in the script for two years between 2009 and 2011; at least 10 different drafts were written.

From the beginning, North Korean filmmakers favored a story set in the past, when soldiers from both countries fought side by side against Japanese and American troops, while Li and his colleagues were worried that this kind of idea would turn the movie into just another documentary about that period of history.

To satisfy both sides, they finally agreed to include a subplot about a Chinese photographer who tries to find his late grandfather's North Korean friend from that period (1950-1953).

Many drafts

Many disagreements over the script were caused by misunderstandings about each other's society and day-to-day life, according to Li.

One draft from Chinese script writers follows the story of a young Chinese couple who tours Pyongyang with their child. The child wanders out of the hotel alone and gets lost. The couple encounters many warm-hearted North Koreans and incidents in the process of finding the child. The draft was declined by the North Korean crew.

Li quoted the North Korean team as saying of the script, "It's not realistic. If anyone sees a foreign child in Pyongyang, he will take the kid to the police station right away. The kid will be returned to their parents within one hour."

They also deleted the scene of a North Korean postal delivery woman on a bike because women are not allowed to ride bikes in Pyongyang since they wear skirts and it's not convenient to ride while wearing skirts.

The film sold out quickly for its premier screening at the recent Shanghai International Film Festival. Distributors from Japan, Canada, the United States and many other countries discussed buying the screening rights. A South Korean company has signed a contract and many film festival organizers from around the world are discussing possible screenings.

Chinese crew and actors just returned from the film's North Korean premiere in Pyongyang on June 27. A Korean delegation, including the film team, is to arrive in Beijing on July 14 for a screening tour in Beijing, Shanghai and Zhengzhou, capital city of Henan Province. It will soon be screened at major cinemas in both countries. Dates have not been set.

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