It started with dinner, a grand affair held at the Yangakdo Hotel back in 2008. The occasion – the opening ceremony of the Pyongyang International Film Festival. Our documentary, “Aki Ra’s Boys” had been invited to participate and we’d jumped at the chance to visit a country that had long fascinated us.
Our guide was a warm, motherly lady called Mrs Pak. She was a tiny thing, not much more than five feet tall. But she surprised us with her enthusiasm and energy. I will never forget how she challenged us to a string of ping pong games at the basement of our hotel one evening. She whooped our assess, despite being so small and so constrained by her long, swishy skirt and high-heeled sandals.
We took to calling her Mama Pak. She loved it and told us we reminded her of her own children. One morning, she showed up at our hotel bearing gifts – pins featuring the image of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung. It was an incredible gesture. The pins could not be bought and had to be specially ordered. Mrs Pak made us promise to take good care of them.
A year later, a group of Danish comedians would be shown the same kind of hospitality. They’d entered North Korea on the pretext of being admirers of the regime who wanted to present a skit as a form of “cultural exchange”. Mrs Pak was their guide and translator. She didn’t know it then, but she also became the unwitting villain of their documentary, “The Red Chapel”. The film, which featured a string of Borat-style gags, would go on to win awards and accolades all over the world. It also landed a small group of North Koreans in deep trouble.
Mrs Pak, we’ve been told, fell ill following the release of “The Red Chapel” and had to quit her job. Despite repeated requests, we’ve not been able to see her since saying goodbye in 2008.
She’s still sick, still very sick.
But can we visit?
No, still sick, still very sick.
But I digress, and should really get back to the banquet. I still remember Mrs Pak taking me by the hand and leading us to what she thought was the best table in the house. We didn’t recognise the immaculately dressed woman already occupying one of the seats, but everyone else in the room did. In her youth, Hong Yong-hui was North Korea’s brightest star. She had acted in one of her country’s best-loved films, “The Flower Girl”, a weepy tragedy set during the Japanese occupation. The movie was a mammoth hit not only in North Korea, but also in China back in 1972.
Throughout the night, a long line of fans waited their turn to pose for pictures with Hong. She was warm and regal and incredibly gracious. And in between all the photo taking, she even managed to strike up a conversation with us.
We spoke about “The Flower Girl”, about how she became an actress, and about North Korean cinema. She told us about the film academy in Pyongyang and about what it meant to be a film worker in her country. It was fascinating. There were a wuzillion questions we wanted to ask but couldn’t because we kept getting interrupted. Sometime during the evening, she asked us what kind of documentary we planned to make next.
“Maybe something about North Korean cinema?” I blurted out, half in jest.
She smiled, told us it was an excellent idea.
We thought that was the end of that. But then the next day, Mrs Pak came to us with a very important message. Her boss, she said, had learnt that we were interested in shooting a film in their country.
“Can you pitch tomorrow?” She asked.
“Pitch?” We half-squealed.
“Yes. You must prepare well.”
And that, really, was how it all started. Mrs Pak, The Flower Girl and an off-the-cuff remark. It would take another year of pitching, talking and emailing before we were finally allowed to return to Pyongyang, gear in tow; another two years before we had enough material to put together a 25-minute TV doc. Maybe a further six months and one more trip before we complete the theatrical feature. In between, there’s been plenty of drama. We’ve had to wrestle with ethical dilemmas and security concerns. Twice, we nearly abandoned the project because we ran out of funds. But we’re nearly there now, and Mrs Pak sparked it all. We wonder if she knows how grateful we are. We wonder how she’s doing now.