Photographer Kim Gwang Song: Film stars of North Korea
The first time a North Korea photographer has been commissioned on an art project, and the country’s first time to allow their film stars to be shown to the outside world. Throughout 2021 and 2022, North Korea’s most famous actors headed out to the Korean film studio for a photographic shoot of the films they had starred in. Unpaid and in their own time they were doing it to support Koryo Studio, a western company that has worked with them for decades. The results of photographer Kim Gwang Song’s remarkable shoot are below.
The photographers curation: 10 Paired Sets:
Kim Gwang Song planned the project to show the process of shooting a film. He curated the project as paired works- each of the pair complementing the other but from distinct viewpoints: “The first photograph is of the director or actor preparing for the scene and the second, as if it was photographic still from the shoot for promotional purposes.”
SET 1: Small House at the Forefront (2013). Actor Choe Yong Ho, age 43: “My wife knows that I am often in character for a period of time, even at home!”
SET 2: Insam Diggers in the Year of Imjin (2018). RI Hyang Suk, age 39: “I would like to act in quite a different role in a comedy or as a bad woman.”
SET 3: A Flower Girl (1972) Actor Hong Yong Hui, age 66: “For the first time in my life I became a heroine. The film became a big hit in Korea and in China, and made people cry with passion.”
SET 4: A Diploma of Graduation (2016). Actor Pak Su Hyang, age 34: “I would like to act in historical movies or in a movie which greatly changes the imagination of the audience.”
SET 5: Footprints of Military Service (2016). Actor Choe Yong Ho, age 43: “I would like to act as hero of a historical movie or detective film because I feel rather typecast.”
SET 6: My Family (2010). Actor Yun Hyang Chun, age 35: “Nowadays more lead roles like this are available, where women represent strong figures with strong moral compasses.”
SET 7: Mother’s Happiness (2003). Actor Ri Sol Hui, age 58: “I hope I can persuade others to follow a constructive path, with strong morals of putting others before oneself.”
SET 8: Bulletproof Wall (2015). Actor Ku Song Bok, age 33: “My size and face makes me perhaps stand out more than others so I get parts in which I can play the hero or even the enemy.”
SET 9: Kite Flying in the Sky (2008). Actor Kim Sun, age 55: My coat is not the original costume… I wanted to be in rather bright colours for the photograph as I have become old!”
SET 10: A Flower Girl (1972) At 16 years old actor Hong Yong Hui played the lead role of Ggot Bun, now aged 66 she remains the country’s most famous star.
Kim Gwang Song shot a number of portraits ‘” I requested the actors to pose as if they were the characters they portray in the film. The actors all became very passionate, I could feel the change as soon as I lifted my camera for the shot- they fell into their role, not the person they were a few seconds ago”.
PORTRAIT 4: Insam Diggers in the Year of Imjin (2018). Actor Ri Hyang Suk, age 39:“ Sometimes I had to act from dawn until late in the evening and that caused me to confuse the lines I had to say in the film.”
PORTRAIT 5: Footprints of Military Service (2016). Choe Yong Ho, age 43: “There is no greater honour for an actor than to be cast in the role of a member of the armed forces.”
PORTRAIT 6: My Family (2010). Actor Kim Ryon Hwa, age 53: “I have a long life in film already and have been fortunate not to get stuck playing one role over and over.”
PORTRAIT 7: from our film ‘Comrade Kim goes Flying’ (2012) a British, Belgian & North Korean production. This was our great adventure into ‘girl power’ in North Korea. For Han Jong Sim it was a chance to leave the circus and fulfill her dream of becoming an actress”
Photographs recreated from the film, Small House at the Forefront (2013) produced by the Korean April 25 Film Studio. Actor Choe Yong Ho (43), “I play the hero in Footprints of Military Service and am once again cast in a military story but this time in the role of military doctor Tae Ung. My wife knows thatI am often in character for a period of time, even at home!”.
The majority of films produced by the Korean April 25 Film Studio are military themed.
Photographs recreated from the TV drama Insam Diggers in the Year of Imjin (2018) produced by the Korean TV Studio Actress Ri Hyang Suk (39), graduated from Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts in 2003, now works as an actress at the TV studio. She has acted in more than 20 dramas in roles ranging from student to nurse. She plays the role of Dal Sil, wife of an insam (ginseng) digger.
“I practiced Taekwondo as a schoolgirl and still find I have the moves. I have played many roles, recently in the 10-part series Glow of the North (2017) where I play the part of an engineer named Jong A. In the near future I would like to act in quite a different role in a comedy or as a bad woman”
Photographs recreated from the film A Flower Girl (1972) produced by the Korean Feature Film Studio
Actress Hong Yong Hi (66). Awarded the highly prestigious title of ‘People’s Artist’, Hong played the lead role of Kkoppun in the film A Flower Girl (the most important film in North Korea film history). Following this role, Hong remained as an actress at the Korean Feature Film Studio. She wants to act in parts which suit her age.
Director Chon Yong Min (72). Served as assistant director on A Flower Girl and has directed more than 40 films himself. He graduated from Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Art in 1975 and is still working as a director.
“After graduating from university, I came to the film studio and I was given the chance to play the lead role in a film entitled A Flower Girl. For the first time in my life I became a heroine. The film became a big hit in Korea and in China, and made people cry with passion. At that time, I acted with a lot of help from my seniors and teachers from my university days. I was not skillful in acting because I was a beginner. Looking at new actors or actresses it reminds me of my young days as an actress. I’m old now, that’s why I’m not as energetic as young actors – but I do have experience. I learn creative passion from them and they learn acting skills from me.”
Photographs recreated from the film A Diploma of Graduation (2016) produced by the Korean Feature Film Studio
Heroine Pak Su Hyang (34), graduated from Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Art in 2013 and is now working as an actress at the Korea Feature Film Studio. In the film she plays military officer Rim Kum Pok.
“I would like to act in historical movies or in a movie which greatly changes the imagination of the audience. For example, the audience thinks of her as a bad woman but she proves to be good at the end.”
Director Kim Chon Ung (50).
Kim has directed five films and worked as assistant director for 18 more. He wants to direct historical movies.
Cinematographer Ri Gwang Il (45),
Ri graduated from Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts in 2009 and is working as a cameraman at Korean Feature Film Studio. He would like to shoot a film which shows the beautiful lives of the people.
Photographs recreated from the film Footprints of Military Service (2016) produced by the Korean April 25 Film Studio.
Choe Yong Ho (43), graduated from Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts in 1996 and has been working as an actor at the April 25 Film Studio ever since.
“I have played the roles of a soldier, military officer, military doctor and captain in over 15 films. However, I would like to act as hero of a historical movie or detective film because I feel rather typecast.” In Footprints of Military Service he plays the part of soldier Choe Sang Min.
Director Kim Won Ha (57), has directed more than 10 films including parts of the long running drama Nation and Destiny. He graduated from Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Art in 1991 and has been working as a director at Korean April 25
Feature film studio. “I would like to direct a film on self-reliance as this is the requirement of the current time.”
Photographs recreated from My Family (2010) produced by Korean April 25 Film Studio
Heroine Yun Hyang Chun (35), graduated from the acting department at the Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts in 2006 and has been working as an actress at the April 25 Film Studio since then. In the film My Family she plays Sun Hi, the wife of a soldier.
“I have acted in nine films in various roles, from the housewife of a soldier to a weaver. I prefer acting in historical films, but one role I would like is to play a policewoman. Nowadays more lead roles like this are available, where women represent strong figures with moral compasses.”
Photographs recreated from the film Mother’s Happiness (2003) produced by the Korean April 25 Film Studio
Heroine Ri Sol Hi (58). Rewarded with the title of ‘People’s Artist’. Ri studied medicine at university in the early 1980s but soon after graduation she was selected to act in the film Song of Love, her first role and a story set in the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital. She changed professions to become an actress at the April 25 Film Studio, and then studied at the University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts from 1994 for four years and returned to the studio to act again. She has appeared in over thirty films in various roles. In Mother’s Happiness she plays the role of the mother of solider sons. She wanted to play the role of a woman who is diligent and lives by her own effort.
“I had a useful life ahead of me in medicine, but also by acting I hope I can persuade others to follow a constructive path, with strong morals of putting others before oneself, and sacrificing for the common good.”
Photographs recreated from the film Bulletproof Wall (2015) produced by the Korea TV Drama Studio
Actor Ku Song Pok (33), has appeared in more than ten dramas as a military veteran, spy, and recently in the TV drama Glow of North (2017, 10 parts).
“My size and face makes me perhaps stand out more than others so I get parts in which I can play the hero or even the enemy. In the future I would like to act as a public prosecutor in a dignified role”.
Director Om Chang Gol (58), graduated from Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts in 1986 and has been working at the TV company since then. Om has directed six television dramas including the eight part series Frontier Gate and the very successful fourteen part Bulletproof Wall.
“I loved making these series because of the sensitivity of the characters I could develop over time. I still want to direct dramas which include themes of saving the lives of the whole country and its people which can be seen as Black sword vs Red sword” – symbolically this represents the confrontaLon against the enemy, the red sword is the one which protects.
Photographs recreated from the film Kite Flying in the Sky (2008) produced by the Korean Feature Film Studio
Heroine Kim Sun (55), graduated from Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts in 1988 and is currently working as actress at the feature film studio. She plays the role of housewife So Yon. She has acted in more than twenty films including Souls Protest and The Forest is Swaying. In a future role she wants to act as a businesswoman.
“My coat in this photo is not the original costume I used in the film. I wanted to be in rather bright colours for the photograph as I have become old!”
Scan of the original film poster and photograph recreated from the film A Flower Girl (1972) produced by the Korean Feature Film Studio.
Actor Hong Yong Hui (66). At 16 years old she played the lead role in A Flower Girl. The poster is reproduced from a scan of the original 1972 offset lithograph print and is an iconic image, recognised by all North Koreans. The film was loved in North Korea & also China during the Cultural Revolution. The film influenced Mo Yan, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature:
“The film had filled the sentimental void of the Chinese and awakened in them the desire for normal sentiments. We weren’t crying over the tragic destiny of a young girl who sold flowers, but, rather, over ourselves and our country. The screening of this film in China was a considerable political event. It was the sign of the total failure of the Great Cultural Revolution that Mao Zedong had unleashed. The tears had washed the eyes of the people, had allowed them to draw the lessons from this tragedy, and they started to hope for a normal life.”
More details: 7 portraits
PORTRAIT 1: recreated from ‘Punishment’ (2012) produced by TV Drama Studio.
Actor Jo Gi Myong, (40) served in the army and has been working as an actor since 2010. She had roles in three dramas as a spy and military officer. In Punishment she plays both the spy Song Jin Yong and her alto ego Song Gum.
“I love acting, sometimes I get lost in the role I am playing, if it is a spy I even act a little like it in life. If I am shopping I find myself trying to remain observant and careful, not wanting to stand out.”
PORTRAIT 2: recreated from Punishment (2012) produced by the Drama Studio.
Director Jong Jin Yong (53), graduated from university in 1991 and has directed seven dramas. His specialty is detective dramas, but now he wants to direct a visionary film which reflects the normal life of the people and their dreams of a bright future.
“As a director I can only smile twice: once when I get a good script, and once when we have finished the shoot.”
PORTRAIT 3: recreated from Punishment (2012) produced by the TV Drama Studio.
Heroine Kim Hyok Sin (33), graduated from university in 2008 and has played roles including police officer, teacher, and journalist in more than ten TV dramas.
“I would like to have the opportunity to act in a comedy, to give pleasure to the people.”
PORTRAIT 4: recreated from the TV drama Insam Diggers in the Year of Imjin (2018) produced by the Korean TV Studio.
Actor Ri Hyang Suk (39), graduated from Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts in 2003, now working at the TV studio. She has acted in more than 20 dramas in roles ranging from student to nurse. In this drama she plays the role of Dal Sil, wife of an insam (ginseng) digger.
“Sometimes I had to act from dawn until late in the evening and that caused me to confuse the lines I had to say in the film. Many people don’t understand how hard filmmaking can be.”
PORTRAIT 5: recreated from Footprints of Military Service (2016) produced by the Korean April 25 Film Studio.
Choe Yong Ho (43), graduated from Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts in 1996 and has been working as an actor at the April 25 Film Studio ever since.
“Korean people hold our soldiers in the highest regard. So there is no greater honour for an actor than to be cast in the role of a member of the armed forces.”
PORTRAIT 6: recreated from We Live Here (1999).
Actor Kim Ryon Hwa (53). A veteran performer who has appeared in more than fifty films in roles as diverse as chairwoman of a cooperative farm, shoe repair woman and police officer.
“I have a long life in film already and have been fortunate not to get stuck playing one role over and over. I wish to continue my career for many more years, and to appear in every different type of film.”
PORTRAIT 7: from Koryo Studio’s film ‘Comrade Kim goes Flying’ (2012) a British, Belgian & North Korean production. This is a film still from 2010, the set up for the shot was supervised by Kim Gwang Hun.
Actor and circus aerialist Han Jong Sim (53)
This was our great adventure into ‘girl power’ in North Korea. For Han Jong Sim it was a chance to leave the circus and do something she never dreamt of…to become an actress “My profession is trapeze artist at the Pyongyang Circus performing somersaults high in the air. I could not believe when Nicholas & Anja wanted me in their film, I was so nervous but was coached by the professional actors in the cast. Now, I have had a baby but would love to act one more time in an action film”.
Kim Gwang Song (age 42)
Kim graduated from the Pyongyang University of Fine Arts in 2002. He has since been working as photographer at Korfilm, North Korea’s main film production company. He is affiliated with the April 25 Film Studio but as there are only public organisations in North Korea he is on occasion able to work with other studios, but his working life revolves around film. He is part of the team involved in the promotion of films, his works used for film posters and associated material. He will attend the shoot of the film to understand the emotion and look for the shot that best encapsulates the storyline.
The cameras he used are a Canon 5D and Nikon D 810.
The Shoot Location:
Photographer Kim Gwang Song arranged the shoot at the Korean Art Film Studio (조선예술영화촬영소), commonly known as Pyongyang Film Studio. During 2021 the featured performers were taken to the film studio and reunited with cinematographers and directors who had worked on some of their most famous and well-regarded films.
The Korean Art Film Studio is the home of the North Korean film industry and is located in a northern suburb of Pyongyang and was founded in 1947. The permanent film lots consist of a traditional Korean village, a 1930’s ‘Manchurian town’, a Japanese and Korean street (before liberation from Japanese occupation) , a South Korean street (set in the 1960’s complete with advertising for morally dubious products and services), and also a European village. There is also a railway station and various sets in wooded areas to represent the anti-Japanese strugglethat took place in the north of the country.
Scenes from the 18-part film series which featured several US military defectors Nameless Heroes (1978-81), were shot at the studio (we featured them in our documetnary Crossing the Line) as were North Korean classics such as Hong Kil Dong (1986) and North Korea’s very first film My Native Home (1949).
‘Shot with Love’ by Calum Macleod
No nation does lockdown like North Korea. No nation does anything like North Korea. As soon as China confirmed human-to-human transmission of a new coronavirus, back in January 2020, its always nervous neighbour slammed shut the borders, and has not opened them since. Not even for vaccine delivery.
Which is a problem when you take people there for a living. From his Beijing home, British film-maker Nicholas Bonner has for almost 30 years offered the main route for foreigners to enter and experience the totalitarian state. Michael Palin, Christopher Hitchens, and Benjamin Zephaniah, to pick just three, enjoyed this “hermit kingdom” thanks to Bonner’s help, infectious humour and irrepressible belief in the value of people-to-people engagement.
Koryo Studio, Bonner’s boutique firm, had weathered nuclear tests, political crises and frequent border closures to achieve breakthrough collaborations like North Korea’s first girl power movie, Comrade Kim Goes Flying. While the real Kim (Jong-un) flings missiles and insults, keeping Koreans on a constant war footing, Bonner kept open his bridge between two worlds.
But Covid-19 has proved the storm that won’t abate. Pyongyang’s letting nobody back in, likely until 2024. And no furlough scheme or compensation exists to save his China-registered and now customer-free business. So the soldiers mobilised, including North Korea’s Judi Dench. Their mission? To shoot a film star calendar – and keep Koryo afloat.
Throughout 2021, the country’s most famous actors trooped off to the state-run Pyongyang Film Studio, outside the capital, to dress up as soldiers. Again. Military themed movies dominate the North Korean box office. “There is no greater honour for an actor than to be cast in the role of a member of the armed forces,” said Choe Yong Ho, although he admits to being typecast and wants to play a detective. Ri Hyang Suk, meanwhile, dreams of playing “a bad woman”.
No nation does charity photo shoots like North Korea. Bonner’s producer friends in Pyongyang took risks to seek and secure approval. The stars gathered, unpaid and unprompted, in small groups of actors and crew limited by Covid-19 restrictions (that’s the virus officials denied had got past the guards), to recreate iconic characters and movie moments. The performers were reunited with original cinematographers and directors. The film cameras were real too, but not rolling, as a photographer captured the scenes with a signature Korean aesthetic.
Why? So Bonner can stay in business, until he can reconnect the world with North Korea again. “It’s a gesture of friendship and trust between directors with very different origins and cultures,” said Bonner of the posed photographs, shot with real love. “In a world where everything is splitting up and crazy, this is all rather beautiful.”
Nicholas Bonner – Director of Koryo Tours and Studio:
North Korean films are guaranteed an audience ready to turn up to see whatever movie is released at any time and, as the films are loaded with political content, it is in the interest of the government to make these films popular. All cities and towns have cinemas, and rural areas are visited by travelling projectionists who arrange screenings in cooperatives farms across the nation. I have watched films in several of Pyongyang’s cinemas and the atmosphere of ‘going to the movies’ is the same as can be experienced in any country; a chance for escapism from the monotony of day-to-day life and to be entertained. The difference being that North Koreans have to take part of the day off to watch a film, as the majority of screenings are during daytime, and the only movies available are domestically produced.
Korfilm (the state-run film production company) produces an annual wall calendar featuring their film stars in a range of kitsch set-up shots; from heroic warrior stances to 1980’s fashion catalogue style poses, During the 2005 shoot of our documentary Crossing the Line I asked if it would be possible to arrange a for a portraiture shoot of the actors. I was told by the director of Korfilm that “in our country film is not a commodity” and that they were not prepared to release their prized stars to the whims of a western photographer. I changed tactics and in 2019 suggested that Kim Gwang Song, a professional North Korean photographer who we had worked with for the still shots on our feature film Comrade Kim goes Flying if he could conduct the shoot. Again the answer was no, the authorities’ concern was that they would have no control in how images would be exhibited outside of the country. I admitted defeat.
In Spring 2021, I received a phone call from our Korean producer who I have worked with on all of our films since 2001. She knew our company was in difficulty with the virus stopping all tourism which is how we raise funds for our various cultural exchange projects. She said she had “received permission to mobilise the actors for your photo project and we will send you the photographs digitally”. The actors were volunteering to to be a part of the project but because of covid restrictions the shoot would take place throughout 2021 and 2022. The files arrived and included three of the most famous actors in the country: Hong Yong Hi (A Flower Girl), Kim Sun (Kite in the Sky), and Kim Ryon Hwa (We Live Here).
It was remarkable for our partners to receive permission to send photographs out of the country, and even more so to be given these images for our own use. A gesture of friendship and trust between film makers from very different backgrounds and cultures. I leave the final comment to our favourite actor and travel presenter Michael Palin :
“These glimpses of actors, directors and film crews at work in North Korea are so valuable. They show a side of North Korean life that we see too rarely, if at all”.