Monday, October 16, 2017

LIBERATION DAY: North Korea again, from an unusual angle, in Olte/Traavik's new rock doc

I'm not sure why but, so far at least, nearly every movie I've viewed about North Korea -- mostly documentaries but also even the sometimes-comic The Interview -- have proven too long, repetitive and a little too boring for their own good. Finally, here comes a documentary to do with North Korea that, despite its being -- yes, again -- too long, repetitive and a little too boring for its own good, is still more enjoyable and thought-provoking than the usual. If not as much fun as the winner (so far) in this genre, The Lovers & the Despot, the 2016 documentary, LIBERATION DAY provides enough intelligence and eye-opening food-for-thought-and-view that it slips just barely into the realm of acceptability.

As co-directed by Uģis Olte and Morten Traavik (the latter of whom is shown at right), the movie's most interesting moment occurs immediately, as this quote from the rock band Laibach appears onscreen:

All art is subject 
to political manipulation 
except that which speaks 
the language of 
the same manipulation. 

Hmmmm, we think to ourselves and immediately begin applying that idea to the movie, country and band at hand, the first of which details the would-be momentous event of this band's surprising invitation -- the first ever for a rock band -- to perform inside the highly closed state of North Korea. That the band's accouterments, from costumes to appearance to performance and much else -- fairly drip of fascistic images (coupled to conscious and consistent irony) makes the invitation even more bizarre.

Unaccountably, a couple of Laibach's songs became hugely popular in North Korea, perhaps because these were "cover" versions of songs from, yes, The Sound of Music, which the North Korean populace probably heard without benefit of any accompanying visuals, thus making them near-completely lose both the sense of Laibach's irony and (most likely made-fun-of) overt fascism.

So here we are as the band arrives in North Korea for what is perhaps the most unwelcoming "welcome dinner" in history, and then we watch and listen as the band's program is consistently undercut by the North Korean censors, even as Laibach tries its level best to abide by the hugely curtailed "freedom" that country allows. Early on, one of the retinue decides to go for an unscheduled walk-around-town, despite the fact that the group has been warned not to go anywhere alone and/or without prior permission.

Undoubtedly because the freedom-to-film is every bit as subject to censor and "permission" as all the other freedoms in this self-titled democracy, what we end up watching for a too-long 100 minutes is often repetitive and not at all what might be the best or most apt visual for us to see. Still, over time, things come together, as does the concert itself, and we're finally treated to a small portion of this, as well as to the absolutely bizarre response from its seemingly baffled audience.

Along the way, yet another stand-off between the Koreas, North and South, occurs and various provocations continue to arise. All this happened before our own nutcase/liar-in-chief rose to the Presidency, but it certainly would have been even more interesting had Laibach's performance come a couple of years later.

In the press quotes for the film, as well as in the actual film itself, we are treated to reactions from HBO Emmy-winning John Oliver and everyone's favorite (mine, at least) Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek as to the importance of the band's visit. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calls this "a genuinely historic event."  Indeed, historic the visit may be, but the movie about it surely ain't. Instead, it keeps promising so much more intelligence, laughs, music, surprise, wonder and/or irony that it can possibly, under these constrained circumstances, ever deliver.

And so we come back to that above quote and what it says/means. The art/language of Laibach (wherever did the band get its name, I wonder? It always makes me think of that famous sexual direction, "Lie bach and spread your legs") is so full of irony, as well as politics, history, pretense and fantasy, while the art/language of its host (is there "art" in North Korea? Isn't real art individually created rather than collectively?) is something real, chilling, provocative and hugely damaging to its citizenry. Or perhaps Laibach is saying that its own art is above such manipulation because -- ah-hah! -- it already understands/speaks in that same manipulative manner.

Well, figure it all out for yourself. The movie, disappointing as it is, is still worth seeing for the questions it raises and for the event it covers. Released by Sundance Now, the documentary receives its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York City's Film Forum this Wednesday, October 18. Elsewhere? No idea, but one would imagine the film will see the light of day (or the light of a movie-house disc player) in a few more cities around the country.

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