Japanese avant-garde, Tropicalismo, and North Korean ideology — onscreen at SxSW

Pub date March 25, 2010
SectionPixel Vision

Just as Downtown 81 is worth watching for its live DNA footage, the Japanese avant-garde music documentary We don’t care about music anyway… is worth a look for the five minutes of two-piece noise rock band Umi No Yeah!. The boy/girl duo jams on a trash-filled beach in Tokyo- — he bent over an old Casio and drum machine and her flailing in a silver body suit while thrashing on a blown-out guitar. The song begins in a swell of noise and ends with an intoxicating dance groove and the girl shed to a polka-dot bikini bottom. The rest of Cédric Dupire’s and Gaspard Kuentz’s documentary intersperses the John Cage-like practice of various male musicians with Koyaanisqatsi-like clips of Tokyo’s industrialized megapolis. Interesting reinterpretations of instruments are revealed — a human heart gets used as a signal and the cello is reclaimed from the bourgeois — but it’s the bikini that distorts the dryness usually associated with avant-garde music.

Beyond Impanema will be fun for anyone who’s still naive to Tropicalia music. Guto Barra’s film has a rich blend of live footage and interviews with the originators from the late-1960’s movement, but for those already convinced and obsessed, it provides little more than a Wikipedia-type history gloss with cool YouTube-like clips. Your enjoyment depends on how difficult it is to find those clips — the ones of Carmen Miranda and Os Mutantes being some of the best — and how much you’re interested in hearing about the import of Tropicalia to America via David Byrne and Arto Lindsay. I could have done with a little more rigor and a little less CSS, Bonde Do Role, and MIA, but because of the great Tom Zé interview three-quarters through, I can’t complain.

North Korea is disturbing. Everyone from CNN to Vice Magazine has revealed this fact with video coverage from inside the Hermit Kingdom. In Red Chapel, Danish journalist and film director Mads Brüger takes this realization a step further by exposing the ideological insides through comedy. Accompanied by two Danish-Koreans — one disabled, the other sumo-wrestler fat — Brüger convinces the DPRK to not only let them into their country but also welcome and embrace them with an open, breast-filled hug that only a desperate, lonely mother could provide. The result is both terrifying and beautiful: blinding naïveté and endearing sincerity get exposed via irony and socio-political concern. Red Chapel goes beyond the pointed-finger approach of “OMG, look at those N. Korean crazies and their anti-US terrorist campaign” and into a genuine, individualized concern that offers a priveleged glimpse into the contradictions of both Cold War-retained communism and post-modern democratic capitalism.