Meet in Pyongyang
China/North Korea, 2012, colour, 2.35:1, 95 mins.
Directors: Xirzat Yahup 西尔扎提·牙合甫, Gim Hyeon-cheol 김현철 | 金贤哲.
Glossy China-North Korea co-production is intriguing but short on human drama.
Beijing, the present day. Wang Xiaonan (Liu Dong), a 24-year-old Chinese performer of Korean folk dance, is shaken when her mentor (and grandmother) Chen Xiuzhen (Tao Yuling) gives her the thumbs down during the semi-final of a dance competition, despite the praise of the judges. Upset that, after 17 years of training, she still can’t satisfy Chen Xiuzhen, Wang Xiaonan only grudgingly agrees to accompany her dance-school head, Ling Jianhua (Li Mengnan) on a 10-day cultural-exchange trip to North Korea. Arriving by train in Pyongyang, Wang Xiaonan meets her assigned guide, Gim Seong-min (Bak Jeong-taek), and is told to behave herself by Ling Jianhua. She asks Gim Seong-min to help her find a long-lost friend of her grandmother who went under the name of Ri Su-mi, and gives him an old photo from 60 years ago. The next day Wang Xiaonan is taken to watch rehearsals for the Arirang Mass Games and is introduced to Gim Eun-sun (Gim Ok-rim), 26, who is a top student of a famous dancer and is choreographing a number in the Games. Gim Eun-sun has a seven-year-old son, Bak Jung-weon (Gim Il-cheol), who is also taking part in the games, and to whom she is devoted. Wang Xiaonan notices that Gim Seong-min is close to both of them. After various ups and downs, Wang Xiaonan finally bonds with the three of them and learns lessons in how to improve her Korean folk dancing.
The first China-North Korea co-production to be shown in both countries, Meet in Pyongyang 平壤之约 is a classily shot widescreen movie that’s let down by a lack of any real drama. Smoothly packaged by Uyghur co-director Xirzat Yahup 西尔扎提·牙合甫, who’s previously handled movies centred on his own ethnic group in Xinjiang (Olympic kid’s film Mai Mai Ti’s 2008 买买提的2008, 2008, and romance Under the Sky of Urumqi 乌鲁木齐de天空, 2011), it avoids much of the archness of “friendship between countries” co-productions and benefits a lot from a fresh performance by 27-year-old actress Liu Dong 刘冬, who made her name as the versatile lead in Heaven Eternal, Earth Everlasting 天长地久 (2009).
The lithe Liu doesn’t get much to work with in the script by Huang Dan 黄丹 and Gim Chun-weon 김춘원 | 金春元. But she brings a sulky-perky volatility, as well as a trained dancer’s grace, to her role of young Beijinger Wang Xiaonan, who’s devoted 17 years of her life to Korean folk dance but still can’t win the wholehearted approval of her grandma, a dance professor. Grudgingly agreeing to join a cultural-exchange mission to Pyongyang, she’s introduced there to young North Korean choreographer Gim Eun-sun who’s working on the 2011 Arirang Mass Games – a meeting that finally improves Wang Xiaonan’s own dancing. The plot is strictly routine, but sidesteps cliches like any local romance or any flashbacks to the two countries’ solidarity during the Korean War. (The latter is briefly referred to in a sub-story of Wang Xiaonan tracking down a long-lost friend of her grandmother, but isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of the movie.)
Instead, a good chunk of the running time is devoted to scenes of rehearsals for the mass games, which are fascinating for anyone interested in the art and underpin the theme of dance as something not for one’s own ego but as a cog in a greater wheel (“100,000 people performing as one”). In fact, with each day captioned on screen, the film has a semi-documentary feel, with the personal stories of Wang Xiaonan, Gim Eun-sun and Wang Xiaonan’s male guide there to provide a human hook.
As the selfless Gim Eun-sun who’s also bringing up a pesky seven-year-old boy (likeably played by Gim Il-cheol 김일철 | 金日哲), Gim Ok-rim 김옥림 | 金玉林, a real-life performer with the Mansudae Art Troupe 만수대예술단 | 万寿台艺术团, is no actress, and largely gets by on calm grace in between parroting some stiff dialogue. Much more natural is Bak Jeong-taek 박정택 | 朴正泽, as Wang Xiaonan’s handsome guide and Gim Eun-sun’s “friend”, who pairs with Liu in an easy, likeable way.
Aside from Liu’s performance, the film earns an extra point for its handsome photography by Uyghur d.p. Geritu 格日图 and Ryu Seung-cheol 류승철 | 刘承哲 that also conveys a natural feel for Pyongyang inbetween the regulation tourist stuff. Editing by Gao Xiujuan 高秀娟, who cut Xirzat Yahup’s Flower (鲜花, 2009), is tight. A nine-minute montage of the actual 2011 Arirang Mass Games – shot by Gao Qi 高琦 and Gao Kun 高锟 – forms a visually impressive climax that substitutes for the shortage of human drama.
The first China-North Korea co-production was actually the clunky Oriental Gladiator 东方角斗士 (2006), a drama directed by Li Qimin 李啓民 and Ri Ju-ho 리주호 | 李洙浩 about the life of Korean-born wrestler Rikidozan 力道山 | 역도산. The finished production, however, was never approved for North Korean release.
Presented and produced by Henan Film & TV Production Group (CN), China Movie Channel (CN), Beijing Jiu Zhou Zhong Yuan Digital Film Theatre Chain (CN), Zhungeerji Golden Field Film & TV Cultural Communication (CN), Yulin City Da Xing Film Culture (CN), Sichuan Red Flag Film (CN), Beijing He Li Jiang Film & TV Cultural Communication (CN), Xi’an Bo Jie Film Investment (CN), Korea Film Studio (NK).
Script: Huang Dan, Gim Chun-weon. Photography: Geritu, Ryu Seung-cheol. Editing: Gao Xiujuan. Music: Gim Chang-il, Jo Seong-su. Art direction: Han Jinfeng, Ro Yong-gil, An Hyok. Sound: Zhang Lei. Choreography: Lv Xing. Mass choreography photography: Gao Qi, Gao Kun.
Cast: Liu Dong (Wang Xiaonan), Gim Ok-rim (Gim Eun-sun), Tao Yuling (Chen Xiuzhen, Xiaonan’s grandmother), Bak Jeong-taek (Gim Seong-min, Wang Xiaonan’s guide), Li Mengnan (Ling Jianhua, dance-school head), Gao Xin [Gao Yangqi] (Gao Fei, photographer), Hong Jeong-hwa (Ri Hye-yeong), Gim Il-cheol (Bak Jung-weon, Gim Eun-sun’s son), Hou Yong (male dance judge), Peng Dan (female dance judge), Zhao Baole (male dance judge), Gao Baobao (female dance judge), Wang Shuangbao, Miao Miao, Bak Geum-shil, Choi Hyeung-cheol, Ri Kun-ho, Gim Yong-heui, Gim Bong-sam.
Premiere: Shanghai Film Festival (Focus China), 19 Jun 2012.
Release: China, 3 Aug 2012; North Korea, 27 Jun 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 13 Jul 2012.)