North Korean Film Screening: The Schoolgirl's Diary - (with English subtitles)
On Wednesday, April 9, the North Korea International Documentation Project (NKIDP) hosted a screening of the North Korean film The Schoolgirl's Diary (Han Nyeohaksaengeui Ilgi) (2006, DPRK) with commentary by Suk-Young Kim, assistant professor of theater and dance at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
The film depicts a North Korean teenager's struggle to understand her father's devotion to his country, and to scientific achievement at the expense of his own family's happiness. Spending the vast majority of his time at work as a computer engineer in a distant town, he leaves his two daughters, wife, and mother-in-law to live in their dilapidated rural home. In questioning her father's values, the rebellious teen begins to defy her mother, a hardworking librarian who spends her evenings translating scientific articles for her absentee husband. The protagonist realizes how selfish she has been only after her father makes a major breakthrough in his scientific research and is lavished with praise for his self-sacrifice and devotion to the state. The film's screenwriters reportedly received guidance in drafting the script from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
According to Suk-Young Kim, since its debut in August 2006, The Schoolgirl's Diary was reportedly watched by over 8 million North Koreans, nearly one-third of the population of the DPRK. A French company purchased the distribution rights for the film in French-speaking European countries, a first for a North Korean film, but the film was poorly-received by French moviegoers, and was shown in only five theaters across France in 2007.
During brief remarks prior to the screening, Kim noted that the teenager who played the film's protagonist, Pak Mi-hyang, became a star overnight in North Korea. She also hails from a family of celebrated North Korean thespians. Both her parents and grandmother have been designated "People's Artists," the highest honor for actors and actresses in the DPRK.
Kim also noted that the special role of science and scientists in the film is noteworthy given the release date of August 2006; just months before the October 2006 nuclear test.
In her remarks following the screening, Kim explained that the film depicts three different generations of women, and does a very good job of displaying the varying expectations and talents attributed to these three generations. The grandmother is a provider, something she does out of instinct. She also prepares food for the family. The mother in the film is a professional, but only works in support of the father. The two daughters, by contrast, inherited different aspects of their father's talents, demonstrating that in contemporary North Korea, women can occupy what had been traditionally male roles. The protagonist is gifted in math and science and considers going to engineering or technical school after graduation. Her younger sister is a talented soccer player. It is revealed earlier in the film that the father almost became a professional soccer player, but gave up this up for his dream of greater achievements and service to the country through science. The grandmother's comment while watching one of her granddaughter's soccer games that she is "almost as good as a son" is instructive in this regard. Yet, while the daughters are capable of playing male roles, neither is individually as gifted as their father and possesses only a portion of his talents.
Kim also noted that in propaganda, the head of a country is often depicted as a father figure. The absence of the father figure in this film leads to disorder. A series of household calamities, such as an electrical fire and a collapsed chimney, ceases only after the father returns at the end of the film, restoring order to the household which was formerly comprised of four women. This return to normalcy in the film coincides with the first appearance of 'Dear Leader' references. The Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, the film suggests, is also a family man, though he must spend 365 days a year serving the people of North Korea. It is implied, naturally, that if the North Korean leader were not diligently working for the good of the people, things would be worse still.
Kim suggested that the film's protagonist is just a normal teenage girl; the portrayal of her self-centeredness is refreshingly normal, and not exaggerated. She recognizes that her father is an imperfect man, but also, by the end of the film, understands that the nation benefits as a result of his sacrifices.
Drafted by James Person, Coordinator, NKIDP
Christian F. Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program