You may have heard about a new comedy movie about North Korea. In The Interview, two American journalists are recruited by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-Un, who is portrayed as an obese, cigar-chomping playboy (which is likely not far from the truth). In response, it appears North Korea has hacked Sony Studios. After the hackers made threats against cinemas showing the movie, Sony pulled the planned Christmas release.
This North Korean reaction is not too surprising. As a neo-patrimonial sun-king cult, it cannot easily tolerate mockery of a leadership it suggests is semi-divine. It is also increasingly clear from Northern cyber-attacks on South Korean institutions that North Korea is ramping up in this area. Indeed, cyber, with its unclear rules for what constitutes aggression, is an ideal twilight space for North Korea to operate in.
Last month I wrote here about the South Korean film industry and its geopolitical penchant to plot around over-the-top American villains. Antagonists are often from the North, unsurprisingly, but usually the Northern and Southern characters discover their shared Korean brotherhood as the film unfolds. Together they then rally against the real enemy, a role often conveniently filled by the Yanks. But this month I thought I would look at portrayals of the North in South Korean and American film in the run-up The Interview (which unfortunately does not look very good; its pre-release Rotten Tomatoes score is just 50%).
North Korea in South Korean cinema
This is a huge topic. Not surprisingly, North Korea is a constant, lurking background for much Korean film, but I thought I would focus here on a few major geopolitical films in the last two decades. The overwhelming emphasis, contrary to US portrayals of evil North Korea, is on the DPRK as a tragically divided brother of the same family. The heartbreak of national division is regularly (and rightfully) mined for deep emotional impact on the viewer, as films on civil wars (such as Gettysburg) often do. For readers with little knowledge of Korean film but interest in North-South issues, the following are worth your time:
1. Brotherhood of War (2004). This is the biggest and the best of the recent South Korean films on national division. It portrays the Korean War with disturbingly graphic yet credible violence, and demonstrates just how confused loyalties became. While the North is the aggressor, Southern atrocities and poor leadership are shown as well. Such honesty is rare in South Korean film and a major mark in favour of the movie.
Two brothers are shown landing on different sides of the conflict. Although this is a fairly transparent metaphor to show the division of Korea, it does reflect the reality that national division in the 1940s split some families (although not nearly as many as you see in the movies). In the midst of extraordinary carnage and waste, the two brothers eventually face each other on the battlefield. While much of the plot and characters are cliché, and the film clearly rips off Saving Private Ryan, it is still the best Korean War film I have seen. It conveys confusion, heartache, and sheer horror, without the silly North Korean comic book villains that mar so much Western film.
2. JSA: Joint Security Area (2000). Another strong film that investigates the pain of national division, with an extremely poignant ending shot. Two border guards from the South and two from the North (rather improbably) strike up a friendship across the Demilitarized Zone. This leads to much metaphorical line-crossing, intermingling, and references to one another as 'brother.' Again, it is fairly emotionally cliché but powerful nonetheless, and I find that Koreans I have watched it with are quite moved by the interaction and inevitable tragedy that ends it. Once again, the North and South are cast as tragically and inexplicably opposed brothers of the same family. Ideology is scarcely mentioned.
3. Shiri (1999). This is a mix of Mata Hari and James Bond: a beautiful female North Korean agent infiltrates Southern intelligence, launching plots that could provoke a war. Her romantic involvement with a Southerner again serves to blend the two Koreas and stress their unity against a tragic geopolitical backdrop. And again, no mention is made that, by the period in which the film story occurs, persistent national division was almost exclusively the fault of persistent, post-Cold War Northern intransigence. While I did not find this particularly good, it was a big hit in South Korea and fueled a wave of inter-Korean movies in the 2000s.
4. 71: Into the Fire (2010). Yet another sad film about the brutality and awfulness of the 1950 war. Based on a true story, a group of Southern students fights to defend their high school against the Northern invasion. Rare for Southern film, the North is portrayed harshly as aggressive imperialists.
US films on North Korea
In contrast to South Korea's marked seriousness and constant tragic emphasis, US film almost exclusively uses North Korea as a punch-line or preposterously powerful comic-book villain. Aliens, Nazis, and post-Soviet Russian gangsters have been used as villains in movies so many times that I guess we need new ones. But the Chinese movie market is too big and too censored to allow Beijing to be alienated with believable stories about Sino-US competition (a shame, that). So instead we get North Korean villains standing in. They are 'Asian' enough to give a hint of China without actually provoking the wrath of its censors:
5. Team America: World Police (2004). Probably the best 'portrayal' of North Korea in American film, because it is a hysterical lampoon that does not take itself seriously like the others below. It's very funny, although don't overlook the ethical issues of laughing about the worst country on earth.
6. Homefront (video game), (2011). This is not a movie, but it does seem to have a launched (below) a bizarre entertainment sub-genre of North Korean invasions of the US. Here is where the US entertainment industry goes off the rails and abjures serious treatment to South Korean filmmakers. Homefront is basically a video-game re-make of the film Red Dawn (1984), in which a group of good-looking young American resistance fighters wage a guerilla conflict against a Soviet invasion of the continental US.
That film has become a campy pseudo-classic of the Cold War, but the game update simply flies over the edge in asking players to believe that North Korea re-unifies Korea, absorbs Japan and then Southeast Asia. These resources in turn fuel its invasion of the US west coast. Hah! There are so many leaps of logic that the whole thing just falls apart. But there are always enough idiot fan-boys to suggest it 'might actually happen, dude!!' And it sold well enough that the Norks will try again to invade America in next year's sequel.
7. Red Dawn (remake), (2012). This film is simultaneously a re-make of the 1984 original and a rip-off of the game just mentioned (demonstrating yet again how bereft Hollywood is of ideas). It is awful, lacking even the camp fun of the game and film. Hot young models in tight-fighting clothes fire rockets and automatic weapons at Korean-Americans with bad accents. Yawn.
More interestingly though, this film was the first major casualty of Chinese geopolitical-cinematic pressure on Hollywood. The original version had contemporary China substitute for the earlier Soviet role as American invader. This far more credible (and potentially exciting) premise was dropped under pressure from Beijing, in exchange for the preposterous notion that North Korea has the resources to launch a trans-Pacific invasion of America. Whatever...
8. Olympus has Fallen, (2013). Yet a third 'North Korea invades America' premise in as many years. Does that mean something? Are Americans obsessed with North Korea, with being invaded, or have we just run out of bad guys? This film's premise is 'Die Hard in the White House': a lone American hero battles Nork agents who take over the White House. Once again, it's laughably ridiculous, but the White House take-over sequence is actually pretty exciting.
9. Die Another Day (2002). And what would such a list be without a Bond film and a super-villain so ridiculous – and with such fluent English! – that it makes Team America look like sophisticated international relations analysis. But if you really feel compelled to scrape the bottom of the barrel of direct-to-video, try this.
So there's so fun geopolitical entertainment for you to relax with over the holidays! Merry Christmas!