Monday, January 05, 2015

Thoughts on "The Interview"

You've read, no doubt, about The Interview, and the Sony hack. The Sony hack that was blamed on North Korea, which people are now doubting was actually done by North Korea.

This piece talks about how uncritically people accepted the government line blaming North Korea.

The Economist goes into more detail about why people are now questioning North Korea's culpability.

VOA News talks about the interest (or lack thereof) South Koreans have in seeing the film.

This one by "The Daily Star" discusses North Korean defectors' response to the film, which is very interesting.

Another one I liked: "I Watched The Interview With a North Korean Defector."

Vice has an interview with a former member of the Kim family's inner circle, who defected, talking about the impact the film might have in North Korea.

Most interesting (to me) Babara Demick, author of "Nothing to Envy" (on my reading list), discusses the film in "A North Korea Watcher Watches 'The Interview'"

At Ask A Korean!, The Korean! suggests this piece from The Atlantic as the best thing to read about the fiasco: basically, if this tempest distracts from the human rights violations going on in North Korea right now, that's really bad, and benefits the North Korean regime. And also... some rich Canadians making fun of North Korea isn't brave, when people are having their entire families sent to prison camps in North Korea for doing the same.

Here is a panel Q&A including a Korean-American filmmaker, members of a few North Korea-focused groups, and a North Korean defector who now works for "Justice for North Korea"

I watched every minute of it. If the movie's interesting to you, or the idea of the movie, watch it.

I've watched the film now. In fact, it's playing right now, while I type this. This won't quite be a "live blog" of the film, because it's not actually much of a film, but as things come up, I'll type about them. Hopefully this will lend a sense of immediacy to the proceedings, but apologies if the post is scattered.

You know what? I'm not going to tag spoilers... it's a Seth Rogen comedy. You're not watching it for surprises, are you? Given that the media frenzy has been about the film's climactic moment, where Kim Jong-un's head is blown up, we already know how this thing ends, don't we?

If you really don't want to have plot points spoiled for you, well, you're watching Seth Rogen comedies for the wrong reason, for one thing, but if it's really important to you, watch the film before reading this, or skip to the next Kim Jong-Jackson, after which I will not have any more spoilers.

1. The people making this movie were definitely, clearly making the film specifically about North Korea, not pinning North Korea onto a basically undefined dictatorship. Somebody who knows a lot about North Korea has given the script a few passes. Details like the fake grocery store and the film opener, with the little girl's song about the death of America, while fictionalized, ring true to what we know about North Korea, and Barbara Demick notes several other spots where the filmmakers were at least factually correct or accurate to what's known about North Korea in her article linked above. You know, when they weren't making butthole jokes. The fake grocery store (as discussed in the panel above) is a fiction, but it puts the entire idea of much of Pyongyang being a giant potemkin village into one, quick and accessible video image.

2. Yes. They make fun of Asian accents. And despite the fact possibly the two smartest characters in the film are both female -- North Korea's propaganda head, and the CIA agent -- they are also the only two, and they are both treated as objects of desire first and foremost.

3. It's a bro comedy. Along with the "are they or aren't they" homoerotic undertones between James Franco and various cast members, (which are underlined by the Eminem interview at the beginning talking about "homosexual breadcrumbs"), there are numerous (yes, numerous) rectum jokes. Penis jokes, anal penetration jokes, and topless women. Part of the Kim family cult is even turned into a butt joke, as Seth Rogen and James Franco (the characters have names, but I don't care) are told that Kim Jong-eun has no butthole, because he works so hard for the country that he burns off the waste before he can excrete it.

4. The movie also actually approaches some important questions about the existence of the Kim dynasty and it's figurehead position in North Korea. Only barely -- when they're first asked to assassinate Kim Jong-un, Seth Rogen asks, "If we kill him, won't they just get another chubby dude with a weird hairdo to replace him?" The CIA plan of cutting off the head is supposed to empower a faction who wants change in North Korea, to take over.

5. They drop some facts about North Korea in -- money it spends on weapons vs. money given in aid, the number of people in political prison camps. I have no doubt they're accurate, and those lines are delivered during the crucial scene. It's hard to decide whether this is tone deaf because it does such a disservice to the real tragedy of what's happening in North Korea, or because such massive human tragedy is going to be cold water on frat boys' laughing high. I guess it depends on which you care about more: massive-scale human tragedy or a shart joke's ability to extract maximum chuckles from men in their 20s.

6. I am a few years past being the target demographic for this movie. But I could totally see my university-age self, who winced and chuckled through American Pie and There's Something About Mary snorting and chortling through this as well.

7. The film cuts to the quick on US foreign policy as well. "Kim must die. That's the American Way." "How many times can the US make the same mistake?" "As many times as it takes." "Killing Kim won't change anything. He will be replaced."

This conversation could be held regarding any number of regions where boogeyman dictators' removal royally failed to unfuck their regions, and it turned out more was needed than just removing the guy at the top.

That said, this exchange was probably also on point "People need to be shown that he is not a god, that he is a man. Then they will be ready for change," which is what Sook, one of the James Franco and Seth Rogens' handlers explains, in order to change their main strategy from straight up assassination, to, more or less, get Kim to cry on air, and people will know he's not a god. This is actually very interesting, and I'll get to it later.

8. The "Kim Jong-un is a fan of our show" inciting bit seems to echo Kim Jong-il's love for Western film and whiskey, while visiting and getting the "seven star treatment" seems to echo Dennis Rodman's visits.

9. I am much more interested in the idea of this film, than in the actual film itself. It is more or less what you expect from a movie starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, and if you're a fan of that, it delivers exactly what you expect, except this time the bad guy is a sitting world leader instead of a drug dealer or a dick boss or (were it the 80s) the preppy frat who wear argyle sweater vests. It's not much of a film, really, and if your daily dose of semen jokes is what you came for, "This Is The End" was a better film. But the fact this film was made, the reaction to it, the idea of delivering information about North Korea in this package, of all packages, is interesting to me. I am quite conflicted about it.

10. Yes, they make a dog eating joke.

11. Randall Park's Kim Jong-un is probably the best thing in this movie. He's likeable and convincing as a manipulator with daddy issues, going from star-struck to preening to a little frightening, he makes us believe the character is a mad dictator, but also that James Franco might hesitate to drop the hammer on him because he just likes him so much.

Spoiler warnings from here on.

The big stuff:

The thing that bothered me the most about the film is how little attention was paid to the really horrific things happening in North Korea. The more you read and learn about North Korea's concentration camps for political prisoners (which are in operation as we speak -- so much for "Never again"), or starvation or mass corruption in the provinces, the more this movie rings hollow -- as if it's a hollywood scenario instead of an actual place where actual people are actually dying right now. Of course, dick jokes fall flat in the face of this stuff.

It's a pun on the word rectum. You know, rectum... wrecked'em? Get it?
Oh never mind.
Photo source.
The bit with the grocery store was a simple and visual stand-in for that bit of storytelling, but it's interesting that an image is used instead of actual humans, that the film resolutely sets its gaze away from the human cost of the Kim dynasty.
They couldn't put that into a comedy. At least, not this comedy. But it still bothers me that they didn't, because I want to have it both ways I guess. It suggests to me that North Korea was still mostly just a backdrop for James Franco to do James Franco stuff, and Seth Rogen to do Seth Rogen stuff, rather than something either of them actually cared about. It would be annoying for Rogen and Franco to be going around playing "White Jesus" to North Korean concentration camp victims, but it's also disappointing that the closest they ever get to addressing what's actually going in in North Korea are a few statistics mentioned in passing in prep for the big interview and comments like these: (rolling stone) "Are we gonna just make movies about guys trying to get laid over and over again? Or, now that we have people's attention, maybe we can focus it on something slightly more relevant – while still doing shit we think is funny." I'd feel better if I at least heard that the filmmakers were supporting NGOs devoted to North Korea or something.

Two spots of self-reflexivity I noticed as well: in the same way a celebrity gossip journalist wants to be taken more seriously, and takes on an interview with Kim Jong-eun, this film can be read as a group of frat boy filmmakers who want to be taken more seriously, and take on a film about an interview with Kim Jong-eun.

Secondly, and this is the biggie: after meeting someone in North Korea who doesn't like Kim Jong-un, the boys change their goal from killing Kim (which would just lead to another figurehead being installed) to embarrassing him, humanizing him, and thus puncturing the personality cult that holds Kim up as a god. {SPOILER} they achieve this in the film by revealing that Kim Jong-un likes Katy Perry, has daddy issues, and then by making him cry and poop his pants on television while the entire world, including every North Korean, watches. This proves he does indeed have a butthole, like a normal human, and that he is subject to human emotions.

Funny thing... releasing the movie achieves almost the same thing, depending on who sees it. It reveals that Kim Jong-un is a joke to the world, rather than a dire threat the whole world fears, which is how he's been packaged in the domestic propaganda. And this is important, when it comes to North Korean people's consent to be governed.

In the long term, it is impossible to indefinitely govern a population who does not wish to be governed. Military or police oppression and surveillance are expensive, and build up a sense of grievance that eventually becomes explosive. Governments can also co-opt a segment of the population, and put them above others, so they have something to gain from keeping the status quo, and those at the bottom focus on class injustice instead of leadership (for example Colonial Japan and the "collaborators"). Promising economic benefits for cooperation with the regime (South Korea 1970s, China now) can work. So can setting up the leader as the best possible leader, perhaps ordained from heaven (this is why dictatorships often include personality cults), or developing fear of an external or internal threat to the people, or the values, or the culture, and fashioning the government as the best protectors from these real or imagined fears (Cold War rhetoric in South Korea today, the War on Terror). Promising enhanced national status vis a vis other countries is probably the one most often used in South Korea. Building up institutions and promoting "national" values and/or a sense of justice and rule of law, so that people believe the going system treats them more fairly than other systems would, and running elections which give leaders a nearly unassailable veneer of legitimacy, is the tack democracies use. These are all ways to convince populations to consent to being governed. 

If the government cannot deliver on the promises they make, their legitimacy is in danger, and when people reject their leader, revolutions happen. This is the corner Kim Jong-un is painted into. The only two institutions North Korea has really developed, now that socialism has collapsed, are the Kim Dynasty, and the military. Because they can't deliver their promise of economic prosperity, the Kim regime has been forced to position themselves as the best leaders to protect North Korean people from the dangers of a hostile world outside the borders. Launching missiles, militarizing the culture, and releasing bellicose rhetoric isn't really for the world audience, though the world media's kneejerk response helps their propagandists. Those actions are a performance for North Korea's people, demonstrating why and how Kim Jong-un is the best leader to protect North Korea from hostile threats. The idea that the world fears North Korea's nuclear weapons and leaders, is the key to Kim Jong-un's legitimacy. If it is revealed that Kim Jong-un is not in fact the source of terror for Western nations and the USA, but an object of ridicule, Kim Jong-un's last strong source of legitimacy is gone. That is why North Korea has responded so overwhelmingly in defense of Kim's dignity. Because his rep is all he's got left, except perhaps his birthright, which people might quickly forget if it looks like he doesn't measure up to his father and grandfather.

The film is not a very good film. But if it manages to convince North Koreans that the world looks on North Korea and Kim Jong-un with pity and scorn, not fear and trembling, that is very very bad for North Korea's national stability, because it means the dictatorship has delivered on none of the promises they used to gain consent of the populace for their method of government. Without the Kim family as figurehead, the rest of the government is just a corrupt and oppressive kleptocracy that has failed to deliver either safety or prosperity to the people they serve, and people who feel their leaders have utterly failed to deliver any benefit for being governed, sometimes decide to dispense with those leaders. 

This movie punctures the personality cult of the Kim family, and that is why it is dangerous to North Korea, and why, in their eyes, their response to the film was justified.

Read similar thoughts in this article, "Why Kim Jong-un Can't Take A Joke"

Was it a good movie? Not really. The movie was much less interesting than the bare fact it got made, and provoked the response it did. The Interview has gotten way way more attention than it deserves as a film, and I dread to think which other shitty filmmakers are watching this and thinking "Look at all the free publicity that film got!" and what godawful films might come out of that. 

But if this film means people start talking about a 90 minute string of anus jokes instead of talking about the UN's Inquiry into the Human Rights situation in North Korea, that is a tragedy. If the film means people are eventually led into talking about that kind of stuff, where they otherwise wouldn't care at all, I suppose that's a net good, but the noise to signal ratio is pretty damn high, and a better filmmaker and writer wouldn't have needed to flinch from the most important thing about the North Korea situation: the real-life suffering of actual North Korean people.

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