Lars von Trier and the North Korean Documentary

Simon and Jacob visit the statue of Kim Il Sung in PyongyangDocumentaries about North Korea are almost without exception brilliant. The troubled one party state lends itself perfectly to whatever approach of documentary you want to throw at it, if only by virtue of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s closed door policy to 99% of the world’s media. Some docs approach the place with the solemnity of tone expected of a country so adept at suppressing, if not just killing its’ own population. Others fall straight into the stop-point-laugh category of filmmaking, in which the sheer scale of DPRK’s sur-reality turns into a grand joke.
The BBC recently screened the amazing documentary Kim Jong Il’s Comedy Club (originally: The Red Chapel) and it stupendously manages to nail both the gravity and the inane hilarity of the matter. It’s amazing, and I’ll explain why in due course. [it’s on iPlayer until 4/4/2010 and you really should give it a look]
My entry into the rabbit-warren of NK docs started with A State of Mind, about two girls training for, and then performing in, the spectacular mass games held in honour of Kim Il Sung’s birthday. To be more accurate my first encounter with the film was on the Music TeleVision, as the music video to Faithless’ I Want More cannibalizes the film’s climatic performance to spectacular effect.
The closing game is strikingly shot, and Sheffield based documentary maker Daniel Gordon has pulled off the feat of capturing the individual cogs in this massive machine of perfectly synchronized children. A documentary of observation more than anything else.
Stepping aside from filmed documentaries, Guy Delisle’s graphic novel Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea captures what it’s like actually living and working in the DPRK. Sent on commission to work for two months in a major ‘tweening’ studio in the capital, Quebecois Delisle recounts the culture clashes and the unfailing frustration of talking to citizens seemingly plucked from another planet.

An extract from the second page of Guy Delisle's Pyongyang

His relationship with his translators (the always-at-your-side state approved guides) are wonderfully telling, and his struggles deciphering opinion from indoctrined propaganda form an interesting crux. Does his guide really believe there are NO disabled citizens? “North Koreans are born strong, intelligent and healthy.” From the way he says it Delisle worries that his guide actually believes the rhetoric.
The book mixes the day to day interactions of the work place with the usual pre set tours that so often form the backbone of documentaries about North Korea. While a filmed documentary would obsess with capturing the scenes as they are passing by, Delisle has the luxury of hindsight when illustrating his own experiences.
Not managing the balance of in-the-moment footage with after-the-event reflection is The Vice Guide to North Korea. Coming from the broadcasting arm of hipster bible éternel, their infiltration of the DPRK is as irreverent as you might expect. While the Gonzo-lite approach works surprisingly well in the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, with North Korea the film strictly follows the increasingly familiar state sanctioned tour route, stopping to point and stare, and then adding a reflective interviews to underscore quite how head-spinning the experience really was.
It’s never really clear if the crew are allowed to film, and while the illicit game of trying to record what you really, really, shouldn’t be is quite a giggle. This naughty schoolboy approach is less effective when speculating on the fact that there my be containment camps just behind that forest, or reflecting that the Nampho dam was probably responsible for the devastating famines of the early 90’s. Oh but they shouldn’t be filming the dam, eek, what larks!
Which is why Kim Jong Il’s Comedy Club is all the more amazing, for taking an even MORE irreverent approach to the matter. Danish journalist Mads Brugger takes two Danish Korean comedians (Simon and Jacob) to NK to put on a comedy show. The regime leaps over itself to invite two South Korean orphans back to the North, and one of them has cerebral palsy! A chance for the nation to prove how tolerant they are towards the lesser abled! You couldn’t script a better piece of propaganda.
Jacob and Simon perform their sketch for the DPRK cultural aidesBoth filmmaker Mads and the regime try to play the two comedians as pawns in their elaborate game, which doesn’t really work as both defiantly kick against the pricks on all sides. Not having any Danish translators within the regime, the visitors can pretty much get away saying what the hell they like, and simmering arguments breakout as the tension rises, hectoring Danish flying back and forth as the visitors do their best to not let on that they are furious with each other.
Rehearsals are broken up with the ever familiar tour of North Korea’s proudest sights, but the trio’s running Danish commentary is brilliant, not just for pouring scorn on what they see, but also for laying bare come how crushingly uncomfortable the two comedians are at being shepherded around. Which is not to say they don’t have some fun along the way, constantly pushing the limits of what they can get away with. Before the show they have to pay due respects to the minister for culture, and having been decked out in the tailored work suits of the people, the trio sing the praises of the glorious leader and spit at the foul underhand dealings of the imperialist American dogs. A gift of a pizza shovel is made to the minister, to pass onto the beloved leader ‘as he loves pizza so much’. Short of asking what pizza is, you can tell no one has a clue what they are talking about.
Simon present DPRK's cultural minister with a pizza shovelIt was almost without surprise that I found out at the end of the film that it was bankrolled by Lars von Trier’s Zentropa production company.The irreverence of the concept has all the hallmarks of the man who takes such pleasure in splitting audiences, and good as the Beeb are for screening the film you can’t imagine any commissioner in their right mind backing this project. A crying shame at that.
Having gone down the same path of laughing in horror at the regime, Kim Jong Il’s Comedy Club pushes through the wall hit by the Vice Guide to, and comes through in sheer brilliance of observational satire. The joke is on the DPRK, the tragedy is that they can’t quite grasp irony the in the first place.
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