“If the person who created [North Korea] isn’t a criminal, I don’t know who is.” – unnamed interviewee, Kimjongilia
Kimjongilia is the name of a flower in the begonia family named specially cultivated for Kim Jong-Il’s 46th birthday. As the documentary explains, the flower represents love, peace, wisdom, and justice, the irony being that symbolic representation does not always sync with that of real life. Kimjongilia, directed by N.C. Heikin, is not specifically about Kim Jong-Il so much as the entire Kim regime, including Jong-Il’s father Kim Il-Sung, and very specifically the millions of North Korean lives that it has affected through violence, starvation, and torture. The documentary is mainly told through stories by people who successfully defected from the country between 1992 and 2006. While it might be expected that only those from the lower strata escaped from the country among the documentary participants are an ex-soldier, a dancer, a concert pianist, and a singer.
In the past, even though the regime was, for the most part, able to suppress information and media from the rest of the world, the suffering of North Koreans became well known. However, the degree to which this suffering existed was not well known. The little photos and video that were allowed out were propaganda at its finest: massive celebrations with dancing, singing, and supplications all to The Great Leader, as Kim Jong-Il came to be known. Little did people know, as one of the escapees says, that even many of those celebrants were themselves suffering from hunger.
Slowly, though, information started leaking out about a widespread famine (with relief botched by the North Korean government due to their personal seizure of social aid meant for the entire country), labor camps, torture, kidnapping (the most high profile being that of famous South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok), and total complete oppression of the people. In fact, at present time, there is very little that is is not known about Korea that the documentary covers, but that it uses those escapees with their own tragic stories of the oppressive conditions of the country is what is eye-opening. The story of the dancer whose mere guilt by association – she was presumed to have knowledge of an affair between Kim Jong-Il and her best friend – and her and her family’s punishment due to that ‘crime’ is particularly heart-breaking. Much of the between-story footage of North Korea is also re-used from news or other media. Among the new media, at least to my eyes, included is fascinating. Film fans in particular will be interested in a few scenes from a propaganda film entitled North Korean Girls in My Hometown (1997), a film that has since screened in its entirety in the West. Interpretive dance vignettes were also placed throughout the documentary which add visual variety.
When all is said and done and the final curtain falls on the Kim dynasty in North Korea, Westerners will remember it as being one of the most bizarre totalitarian regimes ever. From Kim Jong-Il’s fluffy pompadour to the grand, egomaniacal public tributes with participants falling magically in-step almost as if Dear Leader himself (and before him, Great Leader) were controlling them as a marionette does a puppet. The Kims, in fact, have encouraged so much ridicule, scorn, laughs, and rampant parody, that it can be easy to forget all of the suffering that they have caused to warrant such derision. Kimjongilia is a documentary that will never make you forget that.