Asia Rights

Journal of Human Rights, Media and Society in Asia and the Pacific

VOICES FROM EXILE : Panoptic Perspectives

“The Schoolgirl’s Diary” [Han nyŏhaksaeng-ŭi ilgi]: A synopsis.

(2006, Director: Jang In-hak, 93 min. No subtitles, Explanatory synopsis in English)

Dr. Leonid Petrov.

One of the most recent and successful films produced in North Korea, “The Schoolgirl’s Diary” is an attempt to resolve the growing conflict between selfish individualism and patriotic self-sacrifice. It chronicles a girl’s life through her school years, full of peer pressure and family problems, much the same as it is everywhere in the world.

The main character, Suryon, is an ordinary high school student who dreams about a new apartment. Before making a decision on what to do with herself after finishing school, Suryon analyses her childhood and her parents’ difficult life: her family lives in a rundown house, her mother is suffering from cancer, and her father is a scholar-workaholic who spends days and nights at work. This also affects her relationships with her peers at school.  

An appealing alternative does exist, though, and is emphasised in the film. Suryon’s uncle, for example, represents the emerging group of market traders or business entrepreneurs. He is driven in a company car, brings colourful presents and spends time and money taking children to the amusement park. The families of Suryon’s schoolmates also demonstrate success, as they live in new apartments; bring nice foreign food to school for lunch; and boast of their parents’ achievements.

Naturally, Suryon gets increasingly frustrated with her poor and overworked parents. Her protests may appear naïve and immature but the symptoms reveal a bigger problem. In one scene, where Suryon fights with her younger sister over the quality of her lunchbox food, her blouse and skirt also show aggressive colours – the combination of stars and stripes resembling the US flag. Is this a new vogue in Pyongyang? Many people still argue that Socialism in the USSR was defeated by blue jeans and rock-n-roll music.

Echoing the Russian film Courrier [Kurier] (1986), which struck a chord in Perestroika-stricken Soviet Union, the North Korean Schoolgirl’s Diary employs the convenient method of viewing the grim realities of life through the eyes of a teenager. If something in the film turns out to be politically unpalatable, the immaturity of youth is at fault – not the film director.

At some stage, Suryon begins to believe that her father is a pathetic looser who had never even been photographed next to Kim Jong-il. The irony here is that probably everyone in North Korea has had a chance in their lifetime to be photographed in the company of the ubiquitous Father-Leader. Nevertheless, for the young girl who is longing for fatherly love, this emptiness seems particularly traumatic. Frustrated, Suryon does the unthinkable – she condemns her father and leaves him without saying good-bye. No other North Korean film has gone so far as to show such overtly un-Confucian actions on the screen.

Interestingly, the musical score in the Schoolgirl’s Diary is also about “the father”. When Suryon plays guitar and sings about the Great Marshal-Father, most probably she is thinking about her own paternal figure. This duality, once again, helped the North Korean filmmakers to foster a sense of intimacy between the Leader and the People. An unusual point to note, however, is that the ubiquitous “Song of Kim Jong-il” in this film is redolent of a peaceful lullaby or Christmas carol, missing the typically overwhelming marching rhythm.

Despite the agony of selfish whims, all the characters enjoy a predictably happy ending. Following her father’s career, Suryon is admitted to the prestigious Polytechnic University in Pyongyang [Rikwa Taehak]. Her father also achieves a breakthrough with his experimentation work at the Academy of Sciences and receives universal recognition. Kim Jong-il personally comes to congratulate him at the Kusong Machine Tool Plant, a mammoth enterprise which survived the ordeals of the “Arduous March” and has upgraded its technology base. Added to this, the North Korean doctors cure Suryon’s mother, although the name of Pyongyang Maternity Hospital is not mentioned in the list of sponsors like the University, the Academy and the Tool Plant.

For a cash-starving North Korea, which economises on everything, this film was an instant success. Viewed by some 8 million people in 2006, it received high praise at the international film festivals in Pyongyang and Cannes. A distribution company, ‘Pretty Pictures’, bought the screening rights and released the film in France in 2007. A work of export quality, this film neatly fit a market niche and even took steps towards opening a new dimension to the “Korean Wave” phenomenon.



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