Holiday Movie List on North Korea (and "Interview" Reactions)
The Interview was ultimately released in a limited number of theaters as well as through video-on-demand options this Christmas. I saw it in the comfort of my own home, Marc saw it on the big screen; our reaction is below.
But back when it looked as if the movie was headed oblivion, the Committee for Human Rights on North Korea compiled a list of movies and documentaries on the DPRK, or featuring the country as a plot point, that were available to watch instead. We have reproduced the list and descriptions below with a few additional entries of our own. While some are completely brainless (I've only included the remake of Red Dawn as a technicality; do not watch this movie), many of these films are both insightful and informative-- and not a bad way to spend a couple hours this New Years holiday.
- The Berlin File (Ryoo Seung-wan; 2013). A North Korean agent in Berlin is betrayed and cut loose in the midst of a financial espionage intrigue. Together with his wife, a translator at the North Korean embassy in Berlin, they try to escape being purged, as North and South Korean operatives relentlessly pursue them.
- Crossing (Kim Tae-gyun; 2008). The movie is based on a real story about the life of a North Korean defector and his family. Actor Cha In-pyo stars as a North Korean coal miner who crossed illegally into China to get medicine for his wife. Nominated for an 2008 academy award in Best Foreign Language Film.
- Joint Security Area (Park Chan-wook; 2000). After a shootout at the join security area at the border of the two Koreas, when two soldiers were murdered, Major Sophie E. Jean is assigned by the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission to investigate the incident. The Major finds lack of consistency in the statements of the survivors, and in spite of being pressed by her superior, she interviews South Koreans Sergeant Lee Soo-hyeok and Private Nam Sung-shik, and the North Korean Sergeant Oh Kyeong-pil, disclosing a tragic story of friendship.
- The Journals of Musan (Park Jung-bum; 2010). Jeon Seungchul's citizen registration number brands him as a North Korean defector. It is difficult to find a good job and it's hard to get along with people at church. He is not an ex-convict or a migrant worker, but he is subjected to much discrimination. Like the stray dog he looks after, Jeon Seungchul is a misfit in South Korea's capitalist society.
- Swiri (Kang Je-gyu; 1999). North and South Korean super spies battle and fall in love.
- Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War (Kang Je-gyu; 2004). A drama about the fate of brothers forced to fight in the Korean War.
- Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story (Patty Kim & Chris Sheridan; 2006). From IMDB: “A documentary on a 13-year-old Japanese girl abducted by North Korean spies.”
- Camp 14: Total Control Zone (Mark Wiese; 2012). Shin Dong-hyuk was born on November 19, 1983 as a political prisoner in a North Korean re-education camp. At the age of 23, with the help of an older prisoner, he managed to escape. For months he traveled through North Korea and China and finally to South Korea, where he encountered a world completely strange to him.
- Exodus Out of North Korea (Channel A; 2012). For the first time, a group of fifteen North Koreans flee the country as a group. This documentary follows their journey for twenty days as they risk their lives and the lives for their families to find freedom. This is the story of their miraculous exodus out of North Korea.
- Juche Strong (Rob Montz; 2012). From IMDB: “This film explodes the most pernicious misconceptions of the country and argues that the propaganda-fueled national ideology has played an integral role in its survival.”
- Kimjongilia (N.C. Heikin; 2009). From IMDB: “North Korean defectors tell their stories of repression, escape and hope.”
- North Korea: A Day in the Life (Peter Fleury; 2004). Dutch documentary on daily life in Pyongyang, especially focusing on one family’s life.
- Seoul Train (Jim Butterworth, Lisa Sleeth, and Aaron Lubarsky; 2004). From IMDB: “The gripping documentary exposé into the life and death of North Koreans as they try to escape their homeland and China.”
- A State of Mind (Daniel Gordon; 2004). From IMDB: “A British documentary that follows two young North Korean girls as they prepare for the Mass Games, the world's largest choreographed gymnastics performance.”
- Yodok Stories (Andrzej Fidyk and Torstein Grude; 2008). Today, more than 200,000 men, women, and children are locked up in North Korea's political prison camps. Systematic torture, starvation, and murder are what face the inmates. Few survive many years in the camps, but the population is kept stable by a steady influx of new persons considered to be 'class enemies'. A small group of people managed to flee from the camps to start a new life in prosperous South Korea. Some of them gather and decide to make an extraordinary and controversial musical about their experiences in the Yodok political prison camp.
NK Witness Additions
All are in the dumb action movie/comedy category, but nonetheless related to North Korea.
- Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori; 2002). From IMDB: “James Bond is sent to investigate the connection between a North Korean terrorist and a diamond mogul who is funding the development of an international space weapon.”
- Olympus Has Fallen (Antoine Fuqua, 2013). From IMDB: “Disgraced former Presidential guard Mike Banning finds himself trapped inside the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack; using his inside knowledge, Banning works with national security to rescue the President from his kidnappers.”
- Red Dawn (Dan Bradley; 2012). From IMDB: “A group of teenagers look to save their town from an invasion of North Korean soldiers.” It’s a remake of the 1984 Patrick Swayze cult classic, in which Soviet and Cuban soldiers take over middle America. It’s also famous for its own bout of self-censorship: the invading force in the remake was originally Chinese, but was hastily changed to North Korea in post-Production.
- Team America: World Police (Trey Parker; 2004). From IMDB: “Popular Broadway actor Gary Johnston is recruited by the elite counter-terrorism organization Team America: World Police. As the world begins to crumble around him, he must battle with terrorists, celebrities and falling in love.” This all-puppet comedy is the clearest analogue to The Interview as (spoiler alert) it features the demise of a certain father of Kim Jong Un.
And finally, there is The Interview which is now available in a wide range of steaming options such as Google Play.
I saw it actually. All the screenings in the local indy theatre were sold out. Rogen and his co-director filmed this little trailer thanking everyone for coming out to a theatre to see the film. To paraphrase, this is America and you can't tell us what to do. The audience applauded.
The film itself is odd: amid all the sophomoric jokes, it's actually sort of politically sophisticated and not one-sided: it takes shots at American interventions abroad and the hypocrisy that we retain thousands of nukes and want other countries to have zero. It goes after the Kim family regime and -- spoiler alert -- ends with North Korea becoming an electoral democracy out of its own people's efforts. Probably not a bad introduction to North Korea for the Rogen target audience. And my wife laughed harder than anyone in the theatre. Who knew?
I liked the movie more than expected, though it would have been pretty forgettable absent being the centerpiece of an international incident. Yes, there was the assassination plot angle, and references to nuclear weapons, famine, prison camps, and all the other stuff that surely got the North Korean's goat, but the most deeply explored (and humorous) theme was the bizarre relationship between dictators and fame-starved celebrities a la Dennis Rodman/Kim Jong Un. And, in the ultimate irony, Rogen/Franco and most of the American-side cast were actually pretty flat. By far the most likable, humanized, and well-developed character in the movie was Kim Jong Un!
I had a less sanguine reaction to the film than my good colleagues. I watched it streaming at home and thus didn’t get the group rah-rah that they report; I had a hard time staying focused. I initially thought that there would be no greater justice than to distribute this film into North Korea. Now I am much less sure. If the leadership sees it, they will come to the conclusion that the US is indeed a decadent, declining and mindless superpower with only the faintest clue of what is going on in the world. They will also come to the conclusion that the hostile policy is worse than that: it slops over into orientalist tropes, such as the sexy Asian woman just waiting to rip her clothes off for the likes of Seth Rogan. At what point does tongue-in-cheek and wink-wink really just boil down to bad taste? And forget the leadership. Would your average North Korean citizen watching this on a smuggled DVD come to any different conclusion? Sorry, I don't see the revolutionary potential.
Kevin is right, however: the most developed character in the film is Kim Jong Un, and the portrait is hardly flattering. Just a normal, misunderstood kid with daddy issues, he is also revealed as capable of barbarism. Much of the dynamic between the Young General and the incredibly annoying James Franco character David Skylark parallels the Kim Jong Un-Dennis Rodman relationship. Except Skylark came to understood the game; Rodman didn’t.
One last point. Without spoiling it for those of you who have not seen it, the denouement of the film centers on a question posed in The Interview about the food situation. I cheered at that. Who would have thunk it?