Hong Gildong: a classic North Korean adventure film or just sophisticated propaganda?

A review

Hannah Lee

Society and culture | East Asia

10 September 2018

The 1986 film rendition of folk-hero Hong Gildong fulfills many purposes, providing not only an entertaining re-telling of a classic Korean tale, but also a reinforcement of the North Korea’s political narratives and broader identity, Hannah Lee writes. 

Images of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) invite the description of ‘Stalinist’: a photograph of the Dear Leader hangs in every room, while citizens are restricted from their freedom of movement to their choice of hairstyle. As totalitarianism has infected every aspect of life within the DPRK, it feels strange to watch North Korean films on YouTube. Hong Gildong is one such film.

Hong Gildong, the film’s titular character, first appeared in 16th century Korea and currently enjoys folk-lore status comparable to that of Robin Hood. The DPRK loves The Tale of Hong Gildong so much that Kim Il-Sung even ordered the kidnapping of the sole director he deemed qualified to handle the gargantuan task of turning the story into this 1986 film. Surprisingly, the film is far from blatant propaganda, instead of erring on the side of an entertaining remake of a classic story.

Hong Gildong is set in feudal Korea, where strict social division forces our hero to abandon his home and live as a vigilante, where he redresses social injustices. Despite his noble deeds, which include saving Seoul from enemy forces, Hong Gildong is never freed of his background. The class system is insuperable to the point that even the King is forced to deny Hong Gildong the one thing he needs – the permission to marry his love interest. Hong Gildong is instead cruelly expelled from Korea and left to search for a land where he can finally be free.

Hong Gildong complements the DPRK self-image in various ways. The story highlights the injustices of a class-based society in the repeated scenes of the aristocracy being exceptionally cruel to peasants. Examples range from Hong Gildong’s step mother commissioning his murder to a magistrate ordering a child’s execution. These scenes ensure that feudal Korean society appears repulsive.

Hong Gildong is especially effective in rejecting this society, asking, “How can I be a man if I cannot call my father ‘father’ or marry the girl I love?” Hong Gildong acknowledges that his society has denied him the freedoms of love, and that he has been degraded to losing all sense of himself.

We are therefore left to conclude that feudal Seoul is a tragedy. By contrast, the DPRK, for its ordinary citizen who watches the film, is probably somewhat less of a tragedy.

Hong Gildong also provides insight into the DPRK ideology of Juche, often translated as ‘self-reliance’. Hong Gildong is empowered through his self-reliance. This is communicated by Hong Gildong’s mastering of his own challenges while traditional authorities fail to provide for his fulfilment.

In one scene, Hong Gildong’s father evicts him and his mother from their home, while the King promises Hong Gildong anything before denying him his wish. These repeated injustices demonstrate that one must become self-reliant to live a fulfilled life. To achieve this goal, Hong Gildong leaves Seoul for a foreign land, where all people can be equal.

While the North is never mentioned, it is evident that the South has been corrupted beyond reproach. The destination for disenfranchised Koreans like our hero Hong Gildong then becomes very obvious.

Hong Gildong’s patronage to his wise grandfather closely reflects the patrilineal pattern of DPRK communist power. The DPRK is a closed state where citizens engage in cultural practices that demonstrate their respect for ancestors, otherwise known as filial piety.

Hong Gildong somewhat perverts filial piety, as Hong Gildong is indignant of his father’s treatment of him whilst showing the utmost respect to his grandfather. Hong Gildong’s peasant grandfather empowers Hong Gildong to save himself, while his aristocratic father is complacent in the cruelty that he suffers as a child.

In these subtle disruptions to a traditional practice, the DPRK is encouraging it citizens to exercise critical consideration and ask, who is really deserving of such respect? In a broader political narrative, Kim Il-Sung is the saviour of the North Korean people—the sacrifices that Kim Il-Sung has supposedly made would dwarf that of any ordinary DPRK citizen.

If one follows this line of logic, subtly exhibited in Hong Gildong, the conclusion is that only capable leaders are deserving of worship. In a DPRK context, the only suitable recipients of this worship are indisputably the Kim patriarchs.

The entertainment aspect of Hong Gildong also makes the film enjoyable. In a society where many people are without necessities, entertainment is a prized experience. That the regime is providing this experience invites connotations of an astute state: able to anticipate, and provide for, the people’s desires.

By presenting Hong Gildong as an action movie, the regime challenges any scepticism that viewers may have about state productions. That a regime can produce such scenes suggests that the DPRK is a well-equipped producer, spearheading film technology. The opulence of the costuming also suggests that the state takes its citizens’ entertainment seriously, whilst cinematic presentation of Hong Gildong endears the DPRK to viewers.

Rather than suppress Hong Gildong, the DPRK has made him a part of its broader political narrative by rendering him a juche-esque hero. The cinematic prowess of Hong Gildong highlights just how well-attuned the DPRK is to its citizens’ values. Four stars.

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