Starring: Ryung Joo Kim, Mi Ran Oh, Yeon Ok Song
Director: Kyun Soon Joo
Running Time: 92 mins
A Broad Bellflower is a North Korean film about a rural farming village, where one man aspires to move away to the prosperous city, while his lover aims to work hard and turn the village into an ideal and harmonious place.
Despite a couple of stand-out films, North Korean cinema is hardly world-famous, and it’s easy to see why. Normal everyday stories are always skewed the way of party propaganda, and most of the films lack a down-to-earth humanity, arguably the most important ingredient in any good movie.
A Broad Bellflower, though, isn’t quite as frustratingly North Korean as you might expect. At its core, it certainly has a propaganda-driven message, and there are times when its characters act more like propaganda drones than real people. However, the film also has real, human emotion on a number of occasions, and although it’s hardly a heartbreaking watch, it impresses with brilliant high drama at times, all tinged with a degree of regret and longing for the past that really makes this movie feel a lot more human.
Of course, if you go into watching A Broad Bellflower expecting a romantic drama just like in Hollywood, then it’ll be a jarring experience. However – as far as North Korean movies go – this has to be one of the best out there, simply because of that emotional depth that taps into a more universal humanity, rather than simply hammering home a party political message at every opportunity.
While the story gets off to a little bit of an underwhelming start, with a fairly innocuous and bland story about young love, the real drama kicks in with a genuinely riveting conflict between the film’s three main characters, a man who dreams of moving to the big city, a woman who wants to turn her hometown into a place just as prosperous, and her sister, who is horrified by the man’s disloyalty to both those around him and his home.
Again, it’s all tinged with a degree of government propaganda that teaches people to be content with their living situation, even if it isn’t in the most developed place, but it also plays on a universal theme of the dilemma between loyalty to your past, and risking moving on for the betterment of your own future, something that comes to a head in the middle of the second act, where the three characters’ increasingly difficult relationship ruptures in genuinely spectacular fashion.
North Korean films have a great capacity for melodrama, and although it’s often used in a laughably bad way, there are times in A Broad Bellflower where big, theatrical moments of emotion actually play into the film’s hands, adding real passion into the mix in a way that I really didn’t expect to see going in.
Saying all that, as much as A Broad Bellflower impresses both on its own and particularly in comparison to most North Korean films, there are still a number of problems that make it a less-than-spectacular watch throughout.
It may only run for a short hour and a half, but with slow pacing from the start – coupled with two or three lengthy periods without any real conflict between characters – it can feel like a little bit of a drag at times.
Also, while it’s at least something a little different, what really doesn’t work is the film’s split chronology between the events of the past – where the three main characters fell out – and the present, as the man returns to the home he once forsook.
Intended to bring themes of regret and nostalgia into the mix, that structure actually lengthens the film unnecessarily, and takes away focus from its most emotionally riveting story. With a side plot that sees the man’s son coming to learn about the rural village – having been brought up in the city – there’s not much about the part of the story set in the present that really deepens your understanding of what happened in the past.
However, I still can’t deny that A Broad Bellflower is definitely one of the stronger North Korean films out there. It’s not a pure, human drama, but its propaganda message isn’t at all heavy-handed, and it works well by playing on universal emotional themes that make for some riveting and even exciting moments of high drama, which make up for an often misguided story and prove that North Korea really has made a film worth your time, which is why I’m giving this a 7.1 overall.