THE GREAT NORTH KOREAN PICTURE SHOW (PG)
94 minutes/*** 1/2
The story: Students Kim Un Bom and Ri Yun Mi are the male and female rising stars at the Pyongyang University of Cinematic and Dramatic Arts. They are put through their paces while the cameras of Singapore documentary-makers Lynn Lee and James Leong look on. The pair also follows veteran director Pyo Hang as he makes an epic period movie about a famous battle. For the first time, North Korea has given outsiders a peek into how the totalitarian regime moulds youth who aspire to a career in the performing arts.
All the scenes you would expect are here - the dance and acting training that look more like military drills, the recitation of quotes from Dear Leader Kim Jong Il as the answer to any question regarding the arts - but this remarkable fly-on-the-wall journal's biggest triumph is to show North Korean artists being as human as the rest of us.
Aspiring actress Ri Yun Mi's parents are typical Asians who want their daughter to be the best in school.
"Are you playing a lead role?" asks her father. "Yes," she says, and the look on his face, along with his satisfied grunt, say all there is to say.
She appears to be the only child, doted on by her parents, and is spoilt beyond belief.
Like any actress, she frets about her weight while her dance teacher, as is the case all over the world, mercilessly points out her puppy fat as an affront to the art.
Male student Kim Un Bom is the son of a famous actress and carries on a family legacy.
He is earnest and eager to learn as his acting coaches yell at him as he tries to play a doctor carrying out a free vaccination, one of the glories of life under the benevolent guidance of the Eternal Chairman.
Lynn Lee and James Leong began writing to the North Korean state in 2009 and after eight months of e-mails, they were given access.
Their footage was, of course, checked by the authorities at the end of every shooting day.
Despite the censors, the pair has emerged with a portrait brimming with human detail. Director Pyo Hang's incessant yelling at his actors, comprised of clueless soldiers loaned to him by the army, is richly comic.
To make his cast shed patriotic tears for a scene, a crew member rubs something into their eyes just before the cameras roll.
And he - like all the artists in the city trying to sing, play an instrument or act - is plagued by blackouts.
And like them, he shrugs, thinks about the glory of the state and carries on making art.
The 6th Singapore Indie Doc Fest begins tonight with this work as the opening film, at 8pm, at The Substation. Film-makers Lynn Lee and James Leong will hold a question- and-answer session after the screening.
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