North Korea’s latest propaganda film, A Short, Three-Day War, is a scatter-shot attempt at narrative persuasion that may well say as much about the sad state of that country’s filmmaking industry (if there is one) as it does about its military preparedness.
The four-minute fantasy presents a sequence of images (many of them close-ups of cannons firing) held together by an off-screen narrator who spins a yarn of an upcoming “surprise” attack that will result in the northern peninsula state dominating its southern neighbor. Some 250,000 ballistic missiles will be launched along with 1,000 surface-to-surface rockets “like a shower from the heavens.” And 50,000 Special Forces infantrymen will manage to take 150,000 Americans living in South Korea prisoner. And that’s just day one of the three-day war.
The history of propaganda films is composed of a venerable list of directors—Sergei Eisenstein, Leni Riefenstahl and Frank Capra among them—who marshaled an arsenal of cinematic devices to achieve their hearts-and-minds-winning purposes: sophisticated montage, historical recreation, camera-in-the-trenches documentary work, to name a few. For cinema, like no other medium, has a unique ability to construct an impression of the world, false though it may be, that stirs people to action.
Sadly, the latest North Korean entry fails Propaganda Filmmaking 101 on just about every count. The images are apparently cribbed from motley sources such that, at its most fundamental level, the film fails to construct any coherent or convincing reality. The repeated close-ups of exploding guns have no visual context. Are they even North Korean? Who knows?
What few shots we get of marauding North Korean soldiers would seem to be lifted (did the North Korean government pay for the rights?) from some ancient fiction film. And the visual effects—cheesy dissolves, tacky composites, and even a 1980s-era saw-tooth transition effect—would indicate that North Korean aesthetics are roughly 20 to 25 years behind the rest of the world.
What is most telling about the film, though, is its subject. This is not a missive focused on the enemy. It is not a documentary laying bare the truth of an evil and soulless capitalist American society. Nor is it a film taking its audience into some happy vision of reunified Korean bliss.
This is a film for North Koreans about North Korea.
It spins a fantasy of North Korean military might. It is the cinematic (the word is generous) equivalent of a military parade where tanks and guns and rockets and missiles are flaunted in endless succession in desperate hopes of conveying to North Koreans the truth of who they are: a mighty and fearless state.
But the film is about as convincing as the would-be missiles showcased last April at a lavish military pageant in Pyongyang. Just as those fakes were nothing more than a mishmash of liquid-fuel and solid-fuel components, so too is the latest North Korean propaganda a hodgepodge of images and effects. Worse, it’s a dismal disservice to the fine cinematic tradition of propaganda filmmaking.