SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) In recent weeks the question of whether or not North Korea’s despotic leader Kim Jong-un has a sense of humour seems to have been unequivocally answered. The joke that appears not to have brought the merest smirk from the leader of the Hermit Kingdom is the upcoming release of the James Franco and Seth Rogen film The Interview. The comedy sees the pair as a hapless tabloid TV host and his producer who are recruited by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-un (played by Korean-American actor, Randall Park).
The first signs of North Korea’s displeasure at the film, directed by Evan Goldberg, was two weeks after the teaser trailer appeared online, on 11 June. North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote a letter to the White House denouncing the film as terrorism and an “act of war”, a charge which they escalated further as a complaint to the UN later that month. “If the US Government condones the screening of the film, they will have their consequences,” the spokesman for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) said. “Those criminals who mocked our leader and committed hostile crimes against our People’s Republic will be punished according to the law – wherever they hide on this globe.”
The film’s distributor, Columbia Pictures, must have been rubbing their hands at the wave of publicity this gave the production ahead of its release on 25 December. But a plot twist came at the end of November when Sony, which owns Columbia, had their servers hacked and a mass of sensitive information was released in an apparent yet unconfirmed act of retaliation from North Korea. Everything from the salaries Franco and Rogen earned to the personal records of 47,000 Sony employees were leaked with the threat of “more to follow” should the film be released.
As the investigation continues into whether North Korea did launch a state-sponsored attack on a Hollywood movie studio or not, it does raise the question of what prompted the DPRK into such heated speech and aggressive action.
The Interview isn’t the first time Hollywood has used the enigmatic communist state as subject matter for its films. In the past three years we have seen North Koreans take over the White House in a terrorist plot (Olympus Has Fallen, 2013) and overthrow the entire US in Red Dawn (2012). North Korea as a stock rogue state dripped into Hollywood filmmaking even before then. Touchstone (a subsidiary of Disney) was early onto the scene with 1988’s otherwise unremarkable adventure The Rescue, which saw a group of military brats undertake a mission into North Korea to liberate their captured fathers. Coming at a time when even less was known of the reclusive state, the film barely caused a stir from North Korea itself.
The defining cinematic parody of the North Korean dynasty escaped with little more than a diplomatic murmur of discontent, however. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police envisioned Kim Jong-un’s father as a psychopathic marionette puppet bent on world domination and for many will be the defining cinematic take on the late Kim Jong-il. But the only diplomatic wave the film caused was a request for screenings to be canceled in the Czech Republic. Parker and Stone must be counting their blessings, as Rogen and Franco wonder what revelations are next in store for them from the hacking.
Much more than the US, however, it is the DPRK’s neighbours further down the peninsula who have been obsessed with the communist state. As soon as South Korea entered into its ‘new’ era of commercial filmmaking in the late ‘90s, the directors who really thrived were those who used the fear of the North as their subject matter. Shiri (1999) was a Hong Kong-style action flick that probed South Korea’s anxieties that North Korean sleeper cells could be living and operating among them. With news stories of assassination attempts on South Korea’s President Chun Doo-hwan fresh in the mind, Shiri’s stylistic intensity propelled it into being the highest-grossing domestic film of all time and stoked fears that the ideologically zealous forces from the North could be ready to attack at any moment.
The subject of Korean unification, and even Korean identity, proved such an attractive narrative proposition that the following year director Park Chan-wook explored tensions between North and South with his film JSA (2000). Set almost entirely in the demilitarised zone along the 38th parallel that separates North and South Korea, the film (in a somewhat more subtle manner than Shiri) explored the unlikely bond between soldiers on either side of the border. Sneaking out into ‘no man’s land’ and sharing snacks, smoking cigarettes and talking about the shared pains of the human condition, there is little to distinguish the soldiers that geography has arbitrarily set apart. Tragically, these fraternal bonds are not enough to keep politics from fatally intervening in their story.
The other view
As the US and South Korea point their cinema cameras at North Korea in search of comedy and drama, it is worth considering how the DPRK sees itself and the outer world through their own films.
Before his death in 2011, Kim Jong-il had amassed perhaps the largest private collection of films in the world. He was also a producer of films, bent on pushing North Korean cinematic art to new levels to impress his father, ruler Kim Il-sung. To achieve this Kim Jong-il wrote a book on cinematic arts, sent technicians abroad to friendly communist countries to learn skills and even went so far as to kidnap a prominent film director from South Korea and force him to direct films in the People’s Republic.
Where the US and South Korea had a number of actors ethnically suited to play North Koreans, the DPRK had to resort to using US GIs they had caught trying to defect to play Americans in their films. In 1962 James Joseph Dresnok and Charles Jenkins thought they could escape military service in South Korea if they fled north. Instead, they found themselves at the whim of the communist forces and, along with a lot more menial tasks, were asked to appear as a variety of ‘foreign’ roles in movies such as From 9am to 9pm and Nation of Destiny.
With prosthetic noses and drunken antics, Westerners are portrayed in the most unflattering light. But for the film-mad North Korean audiences, where cinemas serve as the central point for nearly every community, there is no distinction between the screen and reality.
So perhaps the reaction to The Interview really is an expression of fear from the North Korean authorities, who believe that as more and more outside influences trickle into North Korea in the form of DVDs, radio transmissions and even mobile phone signals, the picture of their perfect state will gradually begin to be eroded. And since The Interview tries to paint Kim Jong-un and his dynasty as fallible, that is something worth fighting in the strongest possible terms.