Slice-of-life movie eyed as borderline propaganda

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SEOUL — Suryeon is a typical Asian teenager, desiring the comforts of a big, modern apartment and bitter that her workaholic father doesn’t spend time with his family. But eventually, she recognizes the importance of her father’s sacrifice for the national good and regrets her selfishness.

The movie features no violence, no glamour and not even a hint of sex, but Chosun Film Studio’s “A Schoolgirl’s Diary” was the biggest film in North Korea last year, according to press reports after its screening at May’s Cannes Film Festival.

One of only two films produced in the impoverished nation in 2006, it lured 8 million viewers to theaters — an impressive figure in a population of 23 million — and has been bought by Pretty Pictures, a French distributor.

A private screening for journalists and academics in Seoul this month offered a unique glimpse of life and propaganda in modern North Korea.

On the surface, the plot is simple.

Suryeon (played by Pak Mi-hyang), a teenager preparing to graduate from high school, lives with her soccer-obsessed sister, mother and grandmother in an old house in an unnamed town. She has two wishes. The first is to move out of their quaint, semirural home and into a modern apartment. The second is to spend more time with her father (played by Kim Cheol), an engineer-scientist in a factory.

The father’s work is so critical that he barely sees his family, even when his wife is taken ill. However, he is a figure of almost incredible selflessness: After arriving for a rare home visit late at night, he disappears in the morning — only to be discovered assisting his neighbors. In a key scene, he lets another family take the apartment he is offered — to Suryeon’s anguish.

But all ends happily. His project bears fruit, the family moves into an apartment, and supreme leader Kim Jong-il visits the factory, generating respect for Suryeon among her classmates.

The metaphor of the father for Kim Jong-il should be obvious to any North Korean.

“The whole film is about the father figure,” said Leonid Petrov, a Paris-based Russian academic and frequent traveler to North Korea who arranged the screening. “Trust him: He is always there, working for the family.”

Mr. Kim is thought to be a huge movie buff, purportedly owning a library of thousands of foreign videos. In 1978, he ordered the kidnapping of a South Korean filmmaking couple in order to upgrade the North’s film industry. But reports from 2006’s Pyongyang Film Festival that Kim took a personal hand in “A Schoolgirl’s Diary,” remain unconfirmed.

Considering the famines that North Korea suffered in the 1990s, one of the most striking aspects of the film is the amount of food shown on screen. There are family and school picnics, family dinners and innumerable scenes of food preparation in the house’s garden and its kitchen.

Another notable point of the movie is that not everyone is equal. The opening scene shows students with Mickey Mouse backpacks, and Suryeon envies her peers living in apartments. This realism has apparently generated mixed emotions.

“Some say it’s a slander on their socialist life,” said Mr. Petrov, who watched it with North Koreans in Paris. “I spoke to one family about it: The husband was pleased to see advances in filmmaking, but his wife said it was embarrassing.”

The film’s simplistic plot and old-fashioned cinematography compare poorly to South Korea’s sophisticated productions, which have swept Asia in recent years in the so-called Hallyu (“Korean wave”).

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