At a recent Melbourne International Film Festival screening of North Korea’s little seen gem, Hong Kil Dong (1986), one attendee enthusiastically declared to the entire cinema that it was the best film he’d ever seen. His statement was not delivered without irony, but he still meant it.
The story, so far as it goes, is that of Hong Gildong, a Korean folk hero not dissimilar from Robin Hood, whose adventures were first published in the late 16th to early 17th centuries. The bastard son of a significant political figure, Gildong is ostracized and becomes a great warrior, eventually returning to his kingdom where he fights poverty, injustice and Japanese occupation. And he plays a flute. Those watching through a historical lens will see significant (and not particularly subtle) sub-textual allusions to the film’s respective contemporary political environment – this is definitely government approved cinema.
Story aside, there was something quite enamoring about walking into a cinema, having the lights go down, and sitting through a heavily damaged 4:3 (possibly VHS) print of a film so confusedly loaded with touches of genius and incompetence that one might initially presume it was some kind of Tarantinoesque parody. I can honestly say that few comedies I’ve seen have achieved the kind of hysterical audience laughter achieved here. Hong Kil Dong, like so many older martial arts films, is now most easily viewed with tongue firmly in cheek.
Seen from this angle, the experience was infallible. The wire-fighting was probably some of the best I’ve ever seen, the choreography and editing of action sequences were outstanding, and the dialogue was so appallingly subtitled that all narrative continuity was thoroughly lost. Each character’s verbiage seemed so absurdly inappropriate in the context of the film that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t a deliberate coup to target the cult-film market.
Of course, there is a sadder side to such a cinematic experience. When Kil-in Kim directed Hong Kil Dong, his intentions were earnest. An epic film about a Korean legend and his struggle for human rights – untranslated and picture-perfect – this really was meant for an audience with a deeply ingrained understanding of its cultural context. A truth seemingly proven by the perhaps surprising revelation that, this time without irony, “Hong Kil Dong was selected by a group of DPRK defectors as the number one North Korean film of all time”.
Another belated review from the Melbourne International Film Festival.