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Australians can now go see 'The Interview', but they probably shouldn't

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11 February 2015 11:17

It has been almost two months since The Interview was released online, but it is due to hit Australian cinemas tomorrow.

The critical consensus seems to be that the film is juvenile and mildly funny, a poor if necessary choice for the defence of artistic expression, but also possibly somewhat subversive for North Koreans, if only they could see it. I would certainly be happy to see it ballooned into North Korea.

The film's Rotten Tomatoes score has settled in at a don't-pay-much-to-see-it 53%. I find that assessment broadly accurate.

My own recommendation, particularly for northeast Asia watchers for whom the film is now required viewing because of the controversy, is to watch it twice. I did, and enjoyed it more the second time. On first viewing you will be distracted by the low-brow humour, curiously unnecessary bloody violence and fatiguing run-time. The second time through you can ignore those elements and concentrate on the political satire and mockery of the regime, the elements that led to the Sony hack.

(NOTE: The following comments contain spoilers)

The hack of Sony only widened the film's reach

Whether North Korea perpetrated the hack is still up for debate. The Director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and President Obama have repeatedly laid the blame on Pyongyang, and certainly we know that North Korea has hacked South Korean institutions, such as banks and the power industry, in the past. My own sense is that the perpetrator was North Korea – even if the actual breach was farmed out to a 'hacktivist' third party – and that this film was a uniquely important target for two reasons.

First,it portrays the death, graphically, of Kim Jong-un. This is uniquely provocative. I cannot think of another major film that portrays the death of a living leader (one possible exception). In retrospect, it is rather amazing that a plot like that was green-lit. No one at Sony thought it would be risky to show the violent death of a living totalitarian as a (poorly constructed) joke?

Second, North Korea is a neo-patrimonial monarchy built around a sun-king cult, so anything that so blatantly slurs the Kims' 'dignity' is a threat. Political satire is ideologically incompatible with totalitarianism. The Kims are not just the leadership; they are a royal family, so amazing and all-knowing that the propaganda apparatus treats them as semi-divine. This is the root of the running joke in the film about Kim Jong-un not defecating or urinating. So holy are the Kims that North Korean defectors in the South report believing that they did not use the toilet.

When I visited the Pyongyang Metro Museum, the water ladle from which Kim Il-sung had drunk on the work site had been saved and sealed under glass for 40 years as a holy relic. The seat of the first subway car on which he sat had been cut out of the cabin and also preserved under glass. We even visited roped-off benches or look-outs where one of the Kims had sat or stood. The film directly mocks this god-image with its portrayal of Kim Jong-un as a spoiled, boozing, cigar-chomping playboy (which is probably pretty accurate).

Finally, the hack also showed how isolated and out of touch from the modern world of instant communication North Korea really is. The petulant, hyper-sensitive sun-king may have wanted to block the film's many slights, but as Ty Burr of the Boston Globe noted in his review, the North Korean hack insured overnight a huge audience for an otherwise forgettable, mediocre film. 

Movies like this normally do not make it into the Asian film market, where 'cultural protection' quotas mean Hollywood usually chooses only to release its mega-hit franchise films (Harry Potter, Avatar, and so on). And in South Korea, foreign films and games that explicitly deal with North Korea are sometimes banned (as the game Homefront was several years ago). More generally, it is hard to imagine a movie with the bizarre mix of frat-boy humour and North Korea really playing well anywhere (one wonders: who was the intended audience for this oddball movie?) Had the North not attacked Sony, the film would have disappeared along with all the other idiot North Korea movies Hollywood pumps out. No one remembers Olympus has Fallen, but now a global audience has pirated The Interview, including both North and South Koreans. 

If only the film itself were better...

The film's biggest problem, the reason it is such a flawed banner for artistic freedom and the rejection of totalitarian bullying, is because it is so weak as a movie and even as a comedy. This is not the North Korean analogue of The Great Dictator.

The set-up is preposterous. Fluff Western journalists do not get to meet dictators. There is no internal faction waiting to take over if only we could push Kim out of the way. US drones and commandos are not operating in North Korea. The war at the film's end would be a horrible, bloody mess that would not result in pretty women being elected, and so on.

The jokes are strained, juvenile and really start to fail after about an hour or so of the same schtick. Basically, laughs come from James Franco's character acting out, which eventually gets repetitive. Most of the jokes are of the guys-behaving-badly sort that drunk college buddies would find hysterical, but the rest of us grew out of. So the run-time drags after a while.

The graphic, bloody violence at the end of the film is totally unanticipated and nearly wrecks the movie. One minute we are laughing at mildly funny frat-boy humour about sex and partying, as we might have back in college. The next minute we are expected to laugh (I think) when Kim Jong-un shoots a flunkey, or characters bite each others' fingers off in a bloody spray that is supposed to be some bizarre reference to Lord of the Rings (yes, really). It is so incongruous – and weird and unfunny — it almost sinks the film's intended comedic tone.

The scatological humour feels really out of place for a topic as grim as North Korea. Indeed, one has to wonder what kind of producer or writer thought that burp-and-fart slapstick about the worst country on earth would make for great comedy, or be morally comfortable to viewers with some knowledge of the subject (again, I keep wondering about the intended audience for a film with such a bizarre mix of elements). It is correct that Charlie Chaplin made the (vastly superior) Great Dictator mocking Hitler and Mussolini when they were alive. But Chaplin also said after the truth of the Holocaust was revealed that he would not have made the movie had he known. The Interview's idiot frat-boy tone is hard to swallow, given the script also references North Korea's concentration camps.

Laughing at North Korea is morally awkward at best, so writers need to be a lot more intelligent and nuanced about it than just throwing sex jokes at the screen. It's too bad actually; we could use a Great Dictator-quality satire of the DPRK.

If you are genuinely interested in the DPRK in film, skip The Interview and try here.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Wired Photostream.

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