Do you remember the first time you watched a foreign film? Did it give you a new perspective on another culture? Did it show you that filmmakers exist outside of the Hollywood studio system? Were you annoyed by the subtitles? On December 26, North Koreans at long last received the opportunity to make these judgments.
Overshadowed last month by the ubiquitous “Best of the Year” recaps that pervade newspapers and magazines every December was the news that, for the first time, North Koreans watched a Western film on state-run television. The film in question is the 2002 British soccer movie, Bend It Like Beckham (starring a then up-and-coming Keira Knightley). The movie was ostensibly shown to celebrate the tenth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Great Britain and North Korea. Despite appearing in an edited form, the historical importance of this event cannot be understated. Those North Koreans fortunate enough to possess televisions are subjected to a deluge of regime-produced propaganda. The exhibition of such a film gives the citizens of the Hermit Kingdom an unprecedented window to the outside world.
One can only speculate about what this news may mean for North Korea. Does this event presage further flirtations with Western popular culture? If so, would the influence of such media urge North Koreans to press for a more open society? Are we witnessing some degree of societal liberalization, akin to China in the 1980s? It is too early to answer such questions with any degree of accuracy or practicality. One must be wary of falling into the trap of making too much out of this event. Yet this news story serves as a reminder of the power the moving image can have to open people’s eyes to history and cultural viewpoints other than their own.
Documentaries such as the Oscar-nominated Burma VJ are but just one cinematic means of transmitting such perspectives to individuals half a world away. Often overlooked, however, is the fact that narrative films can generate the same outcome. One poignant, if unexpected, example is the original Godzilla (1954). Yes, the same film where a man in a rubber suit destroys a model of Tokyo. While the special effects were dated even upon its release, the Japanese monster classic – which debuted less than ten years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – nevertheless remains a powerful allegory about the dangers of the nuclear age. Godzilla provided the world a glimpse into the psyche of a wounded nation still reacting to its defeat in World War II.
Aside from education, it is noteworthy to observe how foreign film has influenced American popular culture in the past few decades. Would film noir (i.e., detective movies) exist without the influence of Weimar Republic-era German filmmakers? Would films such as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World exist without the continual influence of Japanese film and video games? Would action movies be the same without Hong Kong cinema? Moreover, would Quentin Tarantino have a career without the latter?
It’s a common refrain to hear about how much more integrated the world is becoming through globalization. Yet, the commonality of this sentiment does not belie its veracity. Such globalization demands that we seek to understand other cultures and learn from them. Oftentimes one of the most accessible ways of doing this is through popular culture. Foreign media has a profound effect on both our own culture and knowledge. Let North Korea’s recent experience remind us that we should take advantage of living in a society where multiple viewpoints are available by a simple trip to the local video stores (or Netflix, if your local store has declared chapter 11).