Regime genie

Pub date April 27, 2010
SectionFilm Features

FILM While his unauthorized appearance in Team America: World Police (2004) was surely disillusioning, Kim Jong-il is known to be a foreign film fanatic as well as someone with a keen interest in his own country’s popular media. Popular meaning propagandic, and vice versa — distinctions being useless in North Korea’s case. Inappropriate TV and radio signals are jammed; Internet access is scant; lively arts expressions are strictly “official.” Worldwide, only Eritrea rates lower for freedom of the press.

But why complain when a government-supervised communications realm allows the flourishing of such refined entertainment as Let’s Trim Our Hair In Accordance With the Socialist Lifestyle? Thanks to which broadcast series we know that shorter hair is not only more stylish, patriotic, and hygienic, but improves intelligence — because long locks drain the brain of needed nutrients. (Thus explaining the intellectual reputations of hippies and metalheads.)

The “Dear Leader” has also overseen numerous big-screen productions with alluring titles like A Faithful Servant, A Single Mind, Brigade’s Political Commissar and Let’s Go to Mt. Kumgang. In a 50-page pamphlet titled “Great Man and Cinema: Anecdotes,” he spills all about this fabulous showbiz sideline. Well, perhaps not all: one doubts, for instance, that he comes clean about the 1978 kidnapping of leading South Korean director Shin Sang-ok, who after an attitude-improving prison stint was compelled to make 1985’s nationalistic Godzilla-slash-Golem monster saga Pulgasari.

Other Cinema’s “Mayday Parade(e)” program offers a full dose of propagandic kitsch from the Democratic People’s Republic and beyond. Its centerpiece is The Juche Idea, an hour-long exploration of today’s united-front wonderland. There are excerpts from colossal choreographed Pyongyang patriotic displays, lugubrious dramas, poems (“O bureaucratic capitalism!/ Wet slug to be suffocated in eggshells and beer”) and other materials illustrating the regime’s titular essential ideology. Offering outside perspective is the lengthy interview with a South Korean film student who’s expatriated to an artists’ agricultural collective here after unimpressed stopovers in the U.S. and Japan.

You can stop dialing that local Tea Party hotline right now. The Juche Idea is not quite what it appears to be — though so nearly so it’s ingenious. The final section in an ultra deadpan mockumentary trilogy by plain old American Jim Finn, it mixes actual archival and faked footage to satirize revolutionary snowblindness so subtly you might well be fooled. Following his prior efforts’ send-ups of Peruvian Shining Path militants and a nonexistent East German space program, he again shoots and scores.

The most hilariously ersatz segments are those providing lessons in English as both a Socialist and Capitalist language. Speaking their dialogue with genius stiltedness is Oleg Mavromatti as a Russian visitor no doubt impressed to learn that as far as agricultural and other advancements are concerned, “The manure we’re spreading is just the beginning.”

Moving farther eastward, the ATA program offers fun from another People’s Republic. Great Advancement of Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s Thought (1966), better known hereabouts as Mao’s Little Red Video, is a half-hour newsreel/pep rally focusing mostly on China’s first atomic and nuclear bomb tests. These are triumphant, natch; but more important is the fact that the people themselves are “a spiritual atomic bomb” who will inevitably blow decadent capitalist aggressors to smithereens by their sheer purity of rhetoric.

Early arrivals will be greeted by the turntablings of DJ Onanism and partial screening of Situationist prankster René Viénet’s 1977 Peking Duck Soup, or One More Effort, Chinamen, If You Want to Be Revolutionaries! This cheeky collage uses official imagery in service of an illustrated lecture enumerating all the lies, backstabbings, and massacres throughout Mao’s “visionary” rule. Any regime without humor is bound to generate a lot of the unintentional kind, but Viénet can’t help adding his own particular brand of aesthetic snark. Particularly felicitous are the uses of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je t’aime … moi non plus” and the Singing Dogs’ “Jingle Bells.”


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