Tag Archives: Comics

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.
Tagged , , , , ,

Charting Empire’s 50 Worst Films

Love them or hate them, list making is the back bone of pretty much any entertainment magazine you care to mention, and many a nerdy pub discussion beside. It fills dead space, it kills time, and as the pastime of idle till jockeys has been pretty accurately been lampooned by High Fidelity.

But while geeks can rail each other with the ridiculous subjectivity of their own list of picadillos, the grander readershi- wide polls conducted by publications of size, if not repute, always makes for a worthwhile perusal. Britain’s own colossus of cinema, Empire magazine chose to recently query their readership about what they consider the worst films of all time. While the list doesn’t throw up any shocking revelations (The Room! Battlefield Earth! Batman and Robin!) the fact that a wedge of all the films charted scored three stars out of five, with another slice taking two starts in the very same magazine begs a few questions. The fact that every entry is bookended with a stinker of a quote from other critics as to just how bad the film really is, makes you wonder if Empire has an iota of self awareness about what they’re doing. Maybe a bit of analysis and a pie chart of the worst films’ collected scores could help:

A few of the three star reviews fall in the definite category of stark personal/cult/delusional favourites, with titles such as Howard the Duck, Southland Tales, Dreamcatcher and Heavens Gate making up their number. Widely panned commercial failures, these are films who have their ardent defenders, and Empire has the doggedly all knowing trash expert Kim Newman on staff to tackle the flood of direct-to-video films they get in every month. While Lindsey Lohan’s universally abhorred I Know Who Killed Me failed to get distribution in the UK, Newman was there to argue its corner when it came out on DVD. He’s a unique voice and greatly valued for it.

The other plethora of three stars fall into the dangerous category of the over inflated blockbuster sequel, and number the pitiful Spider-Man 3, Matrix Revolutions, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and the beyond pitiful Speed 2. A cynic might scoff at how easily a magazine got subsumed by hype, if not the questionable trading of favourable scores for big name exclusives. While the practice hasn’t been widely covered in film PR, the dastardly deeds of gaming’s PR folk has been better covered by more vocal critics than me, and it would be naïve to think it doesn’t go on behind the scenes at the big movie magazines/websites/review shows.

But then again doesn’t that just reflect Empire’s remit for espousing the undying fan’s idoltry for all things big brash and Hollywood, where the packaging and the hype are enjoyed just as much as the film itself? As a lad I got absolutely wrapped up in all things Jurassic Park before its release, bought all the special edition magazines I could get hold of and read them to rags. Spoilers be damned, I wanted beyond full disclosure before I went in. During the film I still managed to have the living daylights knocked out of me, but coming out of it I was none the less disappointed that there were no Baryonyx in the film, as that had been on the map in the Official Souvenir Studio-Authorized Magazine that I’d read so closely. Yes, that’s exactly how much of a geek I was.

Thankfully Jurassic Park is, was, always will be a superb film, but when a bit older and wiser I could appreciate the Matrix Revolutions for the absolute travesty it is. It took me the whole of Matrix Reloaded to learn the bitter lesson of hype vs reality to appreciate that. Roll around Spider-Man 3 and I knew better than to go and see it sober. So it goes.

To be generous to the films and the magazine you have to take these films with a degree disbelief suspended, and for a lot of the featured films the experience can be a lot more enjoyable if you just go with the hype. I already take Empire’s scores with a hefty dose of salt, but I guess it’s a small comfort to know that I’m far from the only reader who is able to, if only occasionally, pull back and challenge the hyperbole machine. If only the reviews were a little less by committee and a little more individual then we could just take them and debate them as the subjective reflections they are.

Tagged , , ,

Public Service Announcement

Heres JohnnyThis being the eve of the world’s first International MS Day, those lovely commissioners at More4 have seen fit to repeat Here’s Johnny. Some might say “if you only see one documentary this year then make it this one.” That still stands true, so do make an effort to catch it if you can.

If you miss it then you should be able to catch up with it on the more-complicated-than-necessary 4onDemand.

If you really like it why not buy the smashing super special edition DVD from the filmmakers themselves? It comes with some particularly nice clippings from the cutting room floor, and with its shiny gatefold of awesome art is definitely as lovely a physical object as you’ll ever find.

Whatever you do just don’t miss it!

Tagged , ,

Here’s Johnny

heres-johnny-screengrabI had the tremendous fortune of catching this documentary at last autumn’s Docfest in Sheffield. Primarily drawn by promises of an intimate portrait of an illustrating legend from 2000AD, I ended up sucker-punched by one of the rawest and most honest documentaries I’ve ever seen. Charting the woes of graphic artist Johnny Hincklenton and his battle with Multiple Sclerosis, you’d think it would all end up heavier than a lead balloon. And it is, only with a human face and a pitch-black sense of humour.

The film is interwoven with illustrations and art works by the subject himself, and his vivid and occasionally horrific visuals set an oddly ‘sharp’ tone. Johnny is pretty much in constant pain, and he makes no bones about it: its shit, its hell and he absolutely hates it. It’s his cross to bear, and while he’s eternally grateful to still have control in his hands, he’s terrified by thought of slowly becoming locked in his own body.

For as much as the film is a portrait of a man, it is also an investigation of MS itself. Tackling the issue head on, it covers all the details about a condition which has become a bit of white elephant in the Western world. Everyone seems to know someone who knows someone who has been affected by the disease, and the film came as a dangerous wake-up call on how pitifully little I knew myself. It also goes into the issue of euthanasia, and Johnny’s wishes to be able to pull the plug on his life we he sees fit. As he says himself, it’s his personal ‘fuck you’ to MS.

The filmmakers have achieved something amazing, and the film’s been duly recognised with two Grierson awards, a first in the competitions history. The suits upstairs have for once recognised this, and the film’s TV premiere is on More4 on the 17th of February at 10:00 pm.

Not to sound like a clichéd trailer voice-over, but seriously, if you only see one documentary this year make it this. I would also suggest you make an effort to see more than just one documentary, but whatever you do put this one first on your list.

Tagged ,