Axis of ... cute?
North Korea never ceases to
surprise, even to amaze. Nor is it in all aspects quite
so cut off from global trends as we tend to think. True,
not a lot that Pyongyang produces is of a quality to be
readily salable worldwide. Among the better known
exceptions are missiles. Among the less well known are
What's more, you've seen them. So
cunning is this axis of evil, it's even infiltrated
Hollywood. Yup, we're talking Disney. Pocahontas? The
Lion King? Both of these used North Korean animation
skills: presumably on a subcontracting basis, as
otherwise they'd fall foul of the Trading with the Enemy
Act. Europe has no such restrictions, so French and
Italian producers have been getting cartoons made in
Pyongyang since the mid-1980s. Recent titles include an
Italian Hercules, and France's Billy the
North Korea's center of excellence here
is the April 26 Children's Film Production House - or
more succinctly SEK Studio, which is how you'll see it
billed in credits. According to Hong Mee-yeon of the
Seoul daily JoongAng Ilbo, there is no single training
institute. Animation is taught at such top schools as
Kim Il Sung University, Pyongyang University of Computer
Technology, and Kim Chaek Technology University. Kim
Chaek is working on 3D computer animation, newly added
to the repertoire alongside traditional methods: cell
animation, stop motion (clay and rubber figures), and -
cheapest - paper dolls.
SEK's six studios earn
useful hard currency for Kim Jong-il, as well as
producing for the home market. You'd imagine the latter
would be heavily ideological, like North Korean theater
and movies proper. Sure enough, the first 3D feature for
local consumption - Three Friends in Fantasyland,
released in June - is about "the need to work hard to
acquire in-depth knowledge of science and technology to
contribute to one's country instead of blindly craving
success". Wake me up when it's over, okay?
this is an exception. Most North Korean cartoons are
straightforwardly cutesy tales about cuddly animals,
with names like Twinkle Bell and Exaggerating Bear. I
imagine him as Yogi's cousin: permed hair, sunglasses,
built-up heels, going around saying "Our country is
paradise" to raucous snorts from the other animals -
whom he then sends off to starve in the cold mountains.
Remind you of anyone?
Only kidding, kiddies.
Check it out for yourselves. Both the JoongAng and
Chosun Ilbo websites have a selection of North Korean
cartoons. I couldn't make them run on my computer,
doubtless owing to chronic affliction with what a North
Korean text about industrialization nicely named
"mystery over machine".
According to Ms Hong of
the JoongAng, most North Korean cartoons are
non-political. For that reason adults watch them too, as
a rare chance to relax. Or if didactic, their themes are
universal (good vs evil) and resonate on the other side
of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) also. In a report to the
South Korean unification ministry last year, a Seoul
researcher, Dr Oh Gi-sung, praised the educational value
to the young of their stress on "loyalty, filial piety,
wisdom and courage", and called on the authorities to
distribute them widely in the south. Already as of May
South Koreans can buy the book. Seoul's Duree Media has
a deal to distribute the North's Clever Raccoon
series: a 40-part educational cartoon using animals to
explain basic science. "A brilliant piece of work,"
gushes Duree, which has bought sole rights to the series
for the next 10 years.
The obvious next step is
co-production. Cue Lazy Cat Dinga - if you can
find where he's dozing. This 3D cousin to Garfield, a
joint venture between Hanaro Telecom and the North's
Samcholli, debuted last year - but not in North Korea,
where laziness is verboten. A hit in the South, Dinga
has his own website (mydinga.com) and a range of
merchandise. A licensing contract in May with Hong
Kong's Medialink means the fatigued feline will soon be
airing there, plus in Singapore and Malaysia. (Check
with your kids.) Hanaro is also chasing deals in Japan,
China, France, Italy, Spain and Belgium.
wasn't plain sailing. The JV was signed in February
2001; but Hanaro made some initial episodes alone, and
later held talks to rescue the project - successfully,
it seems. Kim Jong-sae, Hanaro's team head, noted
cultural clashes ranging from the length of his own hair
- he trimmed it before his second trip - to explaining
to the Northern designers such unfamiliar concepts as
hamburgers, theme parks, and Santa Claus (think Kim
Il-sung in fancy dress, surely?). The cost: a modest
US$190,000 for 18 episodes.
side of North Korea makes a nice change from all the
militancy. Better yet, as well as exporting fairy tales,
they're now importing other people's. Last October KCBS
(the North's TV) began airing weekly readings from
Grimm's fairy tales and Alice in Wonderland. Some
foreign cartoons and books of this ilk had been
available since the early 1980s, but this was the first
time on national TV.
Alice, eh? Subversive
stuff, when you already live in a looking-glass world.
What must North Koreans make of such gems as: "Sentence
first, verdict afterwards ... It takes all the running
you can do to keep in the same place… Why, sometimes
I've believed as many as six impossible things before
breakfast." Then again, it may sound only too normal.
Yet this is all to the good. More Grimm means less grim.
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