Shortly before appearing as the villain in the marionette comedy Team America: World Police, Kim Jong Il, the self-proclaimed Dear Leader of North Korea, revealed that he possesses nuclear weapons. That makes him the most heavily armed drama critic in the world. The chubby dictator, who has threatened to submerge his neighbors in a "sea of fire," was just as unsparing in his assessment of 400 years of musical theater in his 1974 tract On the Art of Opera: Talk to Creative Workers in the Field of Art and Literature, available stateside from the University Press of the Pacific.
On the Art of Opera describes how Kim and his dad, the late Great Leader Kim Il Sung, discovered the husk of a tired art form and gave it a much-needed shot of North Korean communism. Any impartial observer would agree that Kim's aesthetic prescriptions are every bit as crowd-pleasing as his economic policies.
"In conventional operas," Kim writes, "the personalities of the characters were abstract, their acting clumsy, and the flow of the drama tedious, because the singers were forced to sing unnaturally and their acting was neglected." Furthermore, until the arrival of the Kims, "no one interwove dance and story very closely."
And now? "The 'Sea of Blood'-style opera," he observes, "has opened up a new phase in dramaturgy." In case you've been living in a cave, Sea of Blood is North Korea's longest-running production, the Cats of Pyongyang. It has been staged 1,500 times, according to the official Korea News Service, which calls it an "immortal classical masterpiece." Kim claims to have revamped the form by chucking the aria out the window and replacing all solo performance with a cunning Kim innovation: the pangchang, a more satisfying off-stage chorus representing groupthink.
The critic's other major work–1973's On the Art of the Cinema, also available from the University Press of the Pacific–offers a blueprint for a Communist movie industry, to be run under the "monolithic guidance" of the Party.
In the 1970s, Kim Il Sung put his playboy son in charge of North Korean culture, sort of an apprenticeship before taking charge of the entire society. As part of his duties, the young administrator personally orchestrated not only the 1983 bombing of South Korean officials in Rangoon, Burma (or so the South has said), but also a number of gaudy musical productions featuring such regional hits as "I Will Remain Loyal" and "Avenge the 'Punitive Expedition.'" He was known as a micromanager, paying frequent visits to film sets and stage rehearsals.
The quickest route to great acting, Kim Jong Il writes, is sheer party loyalty. "Actors must be ideologically prepared before acquiring high-level skills," he says in his cinema book. "The actor requires an ardent love of his class, and a burning hostility towards the enemy." He also takes on the Hollywood star system. "The capitalist cinema, which promotes a few 'popular stars' to curry favor with the audience…reduces the stars to puppets and the film to a commodity. There cannot be a genuine creative spirit, and the beautiful flower of art cannot bloom."
When the flower of art wouldn't bloom fast enough, a frustrated Kim turned to outside talent. Five years after writing his book, he ordered his favorite actor-director kidnapped from South Korea, sentenced him to a re-education camp, and forced him to shoot a Stalinist Godzilla ripoff.
And then there is Sea of Blood. North Korean press releases credit both Kim Il Sung and his son with writing the opera, from which the national stage troupe takes its name. The elder dictator describes his encounter with the Muse in his memoir, With the Century: Reminiscences (published in installments from 1992 to 1995). In the 1930s, he was leading a guerilla army slaughtering the Japanese occupiers when he suddenly imagined the perfect heroine: "a simple woman I had conceived, a woman who recovers from her grief over the loss of her husband and child in a sea of blood to take up the path of struggle."
Such a character would be the perfect tool for conveying the correct way of thinking: Juche (pronounced "joo-shay"), the state virtue of "self-reliance." But who would write it? "I was fully aware that creating a complete piece of art required no less difficult and complex mental efforts than an attack on a walled town," the elder Kim writes. Most of the playwrights he met turned out to be counterrevolutionary flakes, so a colleague encouraged Gen. Kim to pen the libretto himself. "By the time my unit had arrived at Manjiang," Kim recalls. "just over half my work on the script had been done."
Here are some sample lyrics from the libretto, which is illustrated with photographs of red smoke (that's the "sea of blood") swirling across lavish sets:
The garrison commander boasts of his home
But however proud of Mt. Fuji,
It can't compare with Mt. Paekdu-san of Korea
That's the mountain where Kim Jr. was born and, according to the state story, a shooting star marked the joyous ocassion. (Every other account says he was born in the Soviet Union.)
Some scenes seem intended to solicit knowing nods from diehard Juche wonks in the audience, who will get a kick out of seeing the origin story of the "Women's Association." The play also features the Kims' trademarks: unflagging hatred of the Japanese and a fearsome display of North Korean military might, neither of which has ever played well beyond the peninsula. Kim's captive movie director, Shin Sang-Ok, says he tried in vain to warn the future Dear Leader that audiences weren't going to be crazy about this stuff in, say, East Berlin. Still, Kim pressed on in his quest to create crossover Communist entertainment.
But for political impact, you can't beat Kim Jr.'s opera The Flower Girl, which has been blamed for a 1991 collapse of talks with South Korea over family reunions. Northern delegates stubbornly insisted on staging the play in Seoul; the Southerners refused.
The tale of a saintly peasant girl whose family is beaten up by a greedy landlord, The Flower Girl begins, like many other Kim productions, with everyone starving. Off-stage, the pang-chang chorus laments that, if you really think about it, the only things the peasants are harvesting are "sorrow and grief." Later, in what Kim describes as his favorite moment, they look toward the nighttime sky and reflect on how the moon, though seen by everyone, might find some people miserable and others happy. Such are the "contradictions of the exploitative society," writes Kim.
His nuclear weapons may be getting the headlines today, but Kim Jong Il has been producing bombs for years.
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