An Interview with Ren Shujian (Director)
Journey Talking with as Many People as Possible
Q: What prompted you to visit North Korea?
RS: I had a positive image of North Korea before coming to Japan, to the point that during childhood the city of Pyongyang that I saw in movies seemed more advanced than China. After coming to Japan there were the abduction incidents, economic crisis, and in particular President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” pronouncement—completely different from my conception of North Korea to that point. Right around that time I was trying to produce a film as part of a master’s degree program, and I thought maybe I could make something if I visited North Korea myself.
Q: I heard you had a hard time entering the country, but what method did you use?
RS: At first I thought of getting a visa to visit family and staying for a week or so to film, but I didn’t get any response at all. I realized it wasn’t going to be in time for the production, and at that point a friend at the Xinhua News Agency told me about one-night two-day bus tours departing from Yanji in the Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin province. In Yanji 48% of the residents are Korean, and all the signs are in both Hangul and Chinese. It’s normal for people to bring rice to North Korean relatives, or else North Korean relatives buy used television sets or refrigerators and go home. At the time you could easily join the tour if you brought a stamped piece of paper you could almost make yourself. Apparently you need a passport now.
I’d decided to talk with as many people as possible, going completely with my student status and saying it was for my studies, even if people said I was being pushy. I talked with people little by little, drinking liquor and the next day smoking cigarettes together. North Koreans love alcohol and cigarettes, especially cigarettes. You can talk lots just by handing over one cigarette.
Q: Did they pronounce their adoration of the “Dear Leader” because the camera was there?
RS: There’s no god in North Korea. There’s only the “Dear Leader.” So eighteen-year-old girls spontaneously say “Dear Leader Kim Jong-il is my idol,” even if the camera isn’t there. But I can really understand those circumstances. It was the same with Mao Zedong in China during the Cultural Revolution. When I was in kindergarten, the day before foreigners came to visit our class we were told by the teacher to “wear your best clothes tomorrow.” You only want to show your best to visitors. Maybe all countries go through a period like that. In Japan it might be called “brainwashing,” but we couldn’t imagine anything else. That’s my take on it.
Now the important thing for North Korea is to have something like the economic reform that China undertook in the 1980s. “You have many choices of other ways to live” has to be conveyed to ordinary people. The current talk about “your way of thinking is a mistake” isn’t a good approach. It’s going to be trouble unless people’s awareness changes little by little, no matter how much outside forces criticize the country.
Q: From the start, did you make the film thinking you would show it to audiences in Japan?
RS: I wasn’t really thinking about whom I was making it for. But given my current status as a foreigner living in Japan, there are landscapes visible to me that Japanese people can’t see. I think that precisely because I’m in such an uncertain position, there are still lots of themes that haven’t been dealt with. For this film I asked a Japanese friends for help with the editing. There’s the scene where a North Korean man says “Japanese are the sneakiest people in the world,” right? I used the scene to convey “that’s not how it is,” but they had complicated expressions on their faces throughout the editing. This is something I can’t forget.
(Compiled by Sato Hiroaki)
Interviewers: Sato Hiroaki, Hashiura Taichi
Photography: Hashiura Taichi / Video: Kato Takanobu / 2005-10-03 / in Tokyo