For years, friends have asked Christina Choe what it was like visit North Korea, having made the trip before to learn more about her roots and she’d often have difficulty finding the right words to convey such a complicated experience. Thankfully, as a filmmaker, she has other forms of expression available to her.
“Now I get to say, “Just watch this. It’s really what it looks like, at least, for me,” laughs Choe, describing “Welcome to the DPRK,” her compelling four-part series of shorts that is now streaming on Topic.
While filming remains verboten in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Choe used the ability of a still camera with video capture to peek inside the country anyway, joining a state-sanctioned tour to visit sites such as the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities and the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang. But her view of these monuments to the greatness of the country comes with the knowledge that her family fled the country decades earlier, with her great uncle once held in a labor camp before being rescued at sea by the U.S. military, and as a filmmaker who has long specialized in scrutinizing what’s underneath the surface of things, previously making the subversive western short “I Am John Wayne,” which envisioned the barren streets of Brooklyn as a stand-in for Monument Valley to reconsider masculinity in this day and age, Choe’s personal reckoning in reconciling her heritage with the reality of what North Korea is today results in a perspective on North Korea that hasn’t been seen, even by the other brave souls that have dared to film there.
With Choe training her focus on the people, from the kindergarteners decked out in garish makeup to perform songs and dances as tribute to their leader to the library guide who expresses a preference for Michael Jackson over Madonna, “Welcome to the DPRK” tracks the cultural indoctrination of those living in the totalitarian state while delighting in witnessing the human impulses that prevent complete conformity, resulting in a place where part of the fun of going to the zoo can be seeing the chimps smoking cigarettes and blasts of pop music that play out like anthems of freedom can underscore the strictly regimented daily routine for the citizenry. Fear is pervasive as strangers decline Choe’s request to take pictures with her and the filmmaker herself wonders whether any of the doting tour guides will realize her camera’s rolling, but in presenting a multidimensional view of those living in North Korea, she closes the gap between us and them to start a more compassionate conversation about the country, even if she personally feels more divided than ever by what she’s witnessed and unable to show onscreen.
In the midst of putting the finishing touches on her eagerly anticipated narrative feature debut “Nancy,” Choe took the time to talk about the impetus for the emotionally (and financially) taxing trip, the equipment that allowed her to film covertly and the importance on having a different perspective on a place many make assumptions about but have never been.
You’re shown at the very beginning of this preparing for the trip, packing gifts to give to children and obviously certain types of equipment to make a film – how can you plan for something like this?
I did go to North Korea before several months before that trip to basically do a really vague scout. I didn’t know what, if anything, I’d be able to do, so that trip was really useful in terms of trying to see what the parameters were, how I could get away with stuff and what the potential story or journey might be. When I went that first time, I had a very surprising, eye-opening experience. I really connected with my guide and I wasn’t expecting that. Like when I first got there, I remember him saying, “We have the same eyes. We look like you could be my sister.” So it was just more like I had no expectations [for the second trip]. I didn’t know what experience I would have, so it was a combination of scouting what the potential journey could be and what the restrictions would be.
Charlotte Glynn is credited as a co-cinematographer. Is she the person who accompanied you on the trip and interviews you at times?
Yeah, she has a very brief intro — I think she only one shot where [she can be seen when] someone else is filming me, but we both had our DSLR cameras, and I was shooting sometimes and she was shooting sometimes, and she’s the one asking all the questions. Charlotte’s [now] going more into narrative, but she did a documentary about her sister who’s intellectually challenged, so she had that background and basically, we had to keep it really self-contained. We might stay in the same room and the only time we could really do these debriefs about what happened and how I was feeling in the hotel, usually at the end of the day — on really long days. [laughs] And there were times when I didn’t really want to be interviewed or just certain things that she could have a more objective view on, and the combination of [being] already close friends and then her having a documentary film background… she was the right person for me to bring. She was really calm under stress.
The great thing about this project is I ended up working with my friends and we all went to film school together at Columbia University. My editor Chris Radcliff is a good friend of mine and [initially] there wasn’t any money to hire an editor, so I was editing myself for a [time]. In retrospect, I’m like, “Oh yeah, you should never edit your own, especially a personal film in which you are the main character., but [because] I have an editing background, I thought if anyone could do it, I could, but now that Topic has seen it and helped me finish it, I realized, “No wonder I couldn’t figure it out because you just have no distance.” And there is a lot more baggage when you’re editing yourself.
Did you know what form this would take from the start – was it intended as a Web series?
I was hoping it was going to be a feature documentary and it went through different phases. I thought it would maybe be more like experimental, like an essay film, and then I thought it might just be more of a straight feature. When I started cutting it, I started to realize that I didn’t think I had enough material for a feature, so I tried different versions that were under 30 minutes and it really wasn’t until Topic came on to help me finish it that, it seemed [right for a] series. I think they’re going to [eventually] release a long version in one sequence, but because we have little outtakes at the end of each chapter, it ended up working really well.
When you’re shooting something where there are so many restrictions placed on what you can film, are you as conscious while making it of what you’re not capturing as much as what you are?
That was my constant feeling. Being there, [I always was thinking], “Oh I wish I could’ve captured that or that or that,” and that’s part of the story. It’s like this idea of you don’t know what you don’t know. And there are things that are happened while we were there that we couldn’t capture because we were also very careful. We definitely were trying to respect their rules and culture. We weren’t going in there and just being obnoxious about what we were doing.
You do bring out the cinema in this, however – there’s this shot at the amusement park where you shoot some lights resembling fireworks that come into focus gradually that’s a great flourish. That seems like the kind of thing you might not have noticed until seeing what you had well after it was shot — were there times perhaps when you found stuff in the footage you weren’t expecting?
That happened more in the still photos that I took. There was a technique that I had with getting those [where] I would have the camera out the window [of the tour bus] whenever I could, and I wasn’t even looking out through the viewfinder. I didn’t even know what I was getting until I was looking at them later. I put only like seven of those photos at the end of part three [of the series], where I’m [shown] taking pictures, and that was for me this idea of capturing these details of this world of people and their day-to-day life, beyond the curated experience [we had as tourists]. So I had tons of photos, that captured things we couldn’t capture on video for every detail of what their lives were like, and I would [still] like to do something with them because there’s a lot in there that maybe better suited for something [else].
Another great moment in the series is when you’re at the Grand People’s Study House in Part II and Madonna’s cover of Don MacLean’s “American Pie” comes blaring over the loudspeakers. Of course, your reaction is priceless onscreen, but what was going through your head in terms of filming it?
That was one of two scenes where I think when it’s happening, you know this is gold. That guy with the tattoo [of the map of Korea on his arm] in that scene, I knew immediately while it was happening. The [other] scene at the end, [where I’m] talking to the bus driver [is also special and] I didn’t really realize it until later because I was just in it – talking to the guy. But Charlotte, the [cinematographer], knew right away, which was the most important thing because she knew to get the coverage ASAP, and that’s where having that documentary experience really was helpful.
In general, music plays a significant role in the film and you weave it in to really help create the atmosphere. Did you know how you’d be using it from the start?
All the music in there is from North Korea — the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble that’s basically the state orchestra. They’ve put out a bunch of CDs and I’ve always thought the music was so good and interesting and unique, so I’m glad we were able to just use that because it really sets the tone. It’s what you hear when you’re there and it’s the same thing with the titles [which are] in Korean, “Welcome to DPRK” — it [feels like] it’s all more from the perspective of being there and how they would say it.
Given the heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea since Trump took office, what’s it like releasing this now? Did current events reshape what you may have wanted to do with it after it had been filmed?
I’m still seeing what’s going to happen. It didn’t necessarily change the film. There’s the postscript at the end about Otto Warmbier, the tourist who ended up dying, that was definitely on our minds and just reflecting on the greater purpose of this piece, which for me, has always stayed the same — to try to humanize the people of North Korea, especially when there’s all this war-mongering rhetoric going on on both sides. At the same time we were editing, it was Trump talking about North Korea every day in the news, or saying something really inflammatory on Twitter and I think people are very scared right now. But I always felt [what] I got out of filming there was the humanity of the people and and I didn’t really see any major news media organization going inside North Korea doing a different take. It’s all the same ominous music [and suggesting] the guides are stalking us. Nobody bothers to try to talk to the people. That was the greater purpose of it and that never really changed.