In one of the stranger showbiz stories of recent years, it appears that the government of North Korea has been able to shut down a big-studio America movie release. Sony has decided to indefinitely shelve The Interview, previously slated to open December 25, because of emails from hackers implying that theaters showing the film might be the target of terrorist activity.
Thus Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s wacky comedy in the Hangover vein, about two numbskull TV entertainment journalists who are pressed into service to assassinate North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un, could end up as a legendary inaccessible movie. It could take its place with the likes of The Day the Clown Cried by Jerry Lewis or The Other Side of the Wind by Orson Welles.
But if you resent the hack, there are still movie and TV choices you can make which mock Kim Jong-Un or his father Kim Jong-Il – two of the more easily mock-able world leaders, especially since the departure of George W. Bush – and/or reflect badly on their regime. Here are a few examples:
10. Red Dawn
Back in 1984, I spent the summer working, with one of my best friends, in Chillicothe, Ohio. Ronald Reagan was president in those days, and the Soviet Union still existed, and fears that We and They might go to war were very real when, one boring Sunday afternoon, my friend and I went to see the original Red Dawn.
That movie, you’ll recall, is about an invasion of the U.S. by the Soviets. Set in a small town in Colorado, it follows a group of high-school-aged kids who become “The Wolverines,” partisans executing guerilla strikes against the occupying Russkies and Cubans. It seemed absurd to us at the time, but we liked it anyway, and so did a lot of other people; it was a hit, and has grown into a cult favorite in the decades since.
The desire to remake it was probably inevitable, but it came with an obvious problem: Who, in this day and age, would play the essential role of They, especially if the Dawn were to remain Red? The only even nominally Communist superpower left is China, so that’s who MGM originally picked for the 2012 remake.
China was offended by this vulgarity, and why shouldn’t they be? They’ve already conquered us, on the battlefields of Walmart and of the National Debt. Also, China has a lot of people who, like people almost everywhere else, enjoy going to American movies, and MGM didn’t want to alienate them.
But North Korea? Not a big box office concern for MGM. So, after a bit of re-editing, redubbing and digital tweaking, and the addition of a new prologue montage…presto! It’s that global superpower North Korea that’s dropping paratroopers on Spokane, Washington. Dennis Rodman reported that all Kim Jong-un really wants is a call from Obama; according to this movie, the Prez shouldn’t be playing hard to get.
Aside from this central risibility, however, this wingnut actioner, directed by stunt-unit veteran Dan Bradley, is fast-moving and reasonably entertaining. It’s also a hilarious illustration of the degree to which, in this kind of adolescent fantasy, Any Enemy Will Do.
The title character of this 1985 North Korean – that’s right, North Korean – giant-monster movie looks sort of like an ox. A gigantic, scaly, bipedal, fanged ox that eats metal, but an ox nevertheless.
Pulgie is the creation of a poor blacksmith in 14th Century Korea. Imprisoned by an evil warlord for refusing to make weapons, the man gives his daughter a tiny horned figure shaped from rice. Soon after, the girl pricks her finger while sewing and accidently drips some blood on this figurine, which comes to life and starts eating, first the needle, then the door latch, then bigger and bigger items, including the weapons of the warlord’s forces.
The more he eats, the larger he grows. Before long the Pulgster is Godzilla-sized, and a Golem-like champion of the peasants against the oppressive warlord.
It’s really a rather charming fantasy, with obvious communist allegorical subtext, but the movie is less famous for its story than for its bizarre backstory: The producer-director, Shin Sang-ok, was a South Korean cinema bigwig who claimed he had been kidnapped in Hong Kong in 1978 by agents of Kim Jong-il – who dabbled in Executive Producing while he was dictator-in-waiting to his dad, Kim Il-Sung – and held in North Korea to build up the country’s homegrown movie industry.
After making several films, including Pulgasari, for Kim, Shin managed to escape, along with his actress wife, to the U.S. Embassy in Vienna while on a business trip in 1986. He ended up in Hollywood, where he directed and/or produced stuff like 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up under the name Simon Sheen, before returning in 1994 to South Korea, where he died in 2006.
8. The Red Chapel
Simultaneously one of the funniest and one of the more disturbing political documentaries I’ve ever seen, The Red Chapel (Det Rode Kapel), derived from a four-part Danish TV documentary of the same title, makes Michael Moore’s films look Ken Burns-ish in terms of decorum by comparison. The director, Mads Brugger, got permission to accompany two sketch-comedy performers from Denmark to Pyongyang as a gesture of cultural exchange. Very soon the members of this odd little delegation found themselves gently but persistently bullied into participating in propaganda activities.
When we see these guys marching in a state parade, Brugger with his fist held high, it’s both riotous, because of the improbability, and uncomfortable, because of the underlying threat, and because of the sense that Brugger has endangered these guys for the sake of a prank (admittedly a pretty epic one). Probably the most rueful aspect of the film, however, concerns one of the comics, Jacob Nossell, who was adopted from North Korea as an infant.
Nossell suffers from spastic paralysis, and the fact that he was given away to the international adoption community feeds the allegation that the North Korean regime prefers to eliminate the disabled, one way or the other. Yet alongside this grim idea is the suspicion, far less horrifying but troubling none the less, that Brugger is also exploiting Nossell’s disability – with his full consent, of course – in the long tradition of the court jester, for the comedic license it allows him, both in Pyongyang and back home.
7. North Korean Preventative Health Care in World War Z
Possibly the creepiest scene in last year’s rather tame zombie extravaganza World War Z had no zombies in it. It just had David Morse, as a traitorous, jailed CIA man, chatting with hero Brad Pitt.
The wound-up spook explains to Pitt how the North Koreans successfully stopped the spread of the zombie plague, using a bold and decisive public health initiative. And he seems to have to decided to conscientiously participate in it himself.
From these indirect swipes, however, let’s turn to some direct lampoons of the Dear Leaders themselves, starting with…
6. On 30 Rock
Kim Jongs both Il and Un were represented in a few episodes of the fifth and sixth seasons of Tina Fey’s long-running, much-honored NBC sitcom. The elder Kim had abducted the TV journalist played by Elizabeth Banks – which the fate of Pulgasari‘s director might tell you was more plausible than farcical – and got caught right up in the zany twists of the shows storylines, pretty much just like any other character.
The role(s) were played by the great Korean-American comic and actress Margaret Cho, using only a very slight variation on the raspy, insistent voice she gives her mother in her stand-up performances, and somehow, as with her impression of her Mom, she managed, perhaps inadvertently, to make Kim endearing. She got an Emmy nomination for her trouble, too.
The show sent up by 30 Rock also takes its shots at Kim…
5. On Saturday Night Live
Currently inhabiting the part is the cheerful-faced Bobby Moynihan. It seems a bit like one of those cases of an SNL player being thrust into a role, usually of a public figure, before they’ve figured out how to make it their own. Moynihan just doesn’t seem to have found a characterization he’s comfortable with yet. But he’s a lively fellow, and it seems pretty likely he’ll get the chance to work on the role this week.
From elsewhere in the world of TV sketch comedy…
4. On MAD TV
“What up Nor’ Kor’?“
Another Korean-American comic, Bobby Lee, played Kim Jong-Il as a standard showbiz glad-hander during his tenure on Fox’s long-running sketch show, working the crowd and bantering with his bloodied, frightened “Political Prisoner Band.” At one time or another, Lee’s exuberantly upbeat version of Kim encountered everybody from P Diddy to Condoleeza Rice to Renee Zellweger to Frank Caliendo’s Donald Trump – one of the few megalomaniacs who might give Kim a run for his money.
3. The Adventures of Kim Jong Un
These animated shorts, featured on Youtube’s channel College Humor, have something of the feel of Robert Smigel’s shorts from SNL. They feature Kim the Younger as an anime hero, and his facial expressions wonderfully capture the purse-lipped disdain of a junior-high nerd who knows he’s about to be subjected to a swirly, but also knows that he’s superior to the morons that are going to do it. According the credits, Kim himself is the entire production team. The show is also dedicated to him.
In some episodes he’s teamed with Dennis Rodman, who can never stop apologizing for his betrayal of Kim. Perhaps it was for…
2. Shilling Pistachios
…this commercial, in which Kim is seen with his old pal Rodman, peddling pistachios. What’s notable about the ad is that implies that Rodman, of the two figures represented, is the one who’s nuts.
1. “I’m So Ronery”
Trey Parker gave voice to Kim Jong-Il in the 2004 musical action thriller Team America, performed by marionettes in the style of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson shows like Thunderbirds. The songs, merciless parodies of contemporary stage musical styles, were by far the best aspect of that film, and one of the highlights was Kim’s wistful solo “I’m So Ronery,” in which he laments the lack of anyone on his level.
It’s useless to deny the racist stereotype that is the central source of the song’s humor. It’s part of the free pass to be offensive that Parker and Matt Stone seem to have been granted from South Park on, presumably (and hopefully) on the grounds that the stereotypes are being spoofed, not perpetuated. But it also suggests that Kim, and now his son, are our principal designated foreign bad guys, like Hitler was in the days of Spike Jones and “Der Fuhrer’s Face” – exempt from protection against any ridicule.
But they’re still protected, apparently, by effective hacking. You’d think if the old man could tolerate the Team America jape, the kid could handle the idea that the U.S. would like to assassinate him. Indeed, shouldn’t he regard it as a compliment?
Previously by M.V. Moorhead