I know this came out awhile back and almost everyone has seen it now. But my review just went up at the Lowy Institute, so here is my local mirror of that post.
I saw it twice and actually found it reasonably funny the second time, but for low-brow reasons that had nothing to so with N Korea. If you watch it over some beers with your drinking buddies, it’s reasonable Saturday night fare. But all its best jokes are Animal House-style, guys-behaving-badly stuff that has nothing to do with NK, and for which the NK backdrop is totally unnecessary. So why was the film even set there?
Finding humor in North Korea, while nonetheless respecting how awful the place is, is a tough task which would require good writing, something along the lines of The Great Dictator. But Seth Rogen scarcely tries that. Instead it’s all twenty-something American humor (lots of western movies and music references, and sex jokes). So why drag in all the moral weight that comes from engaging North Korea? I didn’t find that morally offensive, as some reviewers did, but rather just bizarre and incongruous. It’s as if a standard issue Hollywood ‘dudebro’ comedy just fell out of the sky into North Korea. Wait, what? Who thought that mix of elements would work?
Whatever. If you haven’t seen it once, you should. Review follows the jump.
It has been almost two months now since The Interview was released. It seemed wise to wait for the initial reactions to come in before commenting here. The emerging consensus seems to be that the film is juvenile and mildly funny, a poor, if necessary, choice for the defense of artistic expression, but also possibly somewhat subversive for North Koreans if they could see it. I would certainly be happy to see it ballooned into North Korea. The film’s Rotten Tomatoes score has settled in at a don’t-pay-much-to-see-it 53%. I broadly find that assessment accurate.
[The following comments contain spoilers and assumes you have seen the film; it can be viewed here (paywall) if you have not yet watched it.]
My own recommendation, particularly for northeast Asia-watchers for whom the film is now required viewing because of the controversy, is to watch it twice. I did and enjoyed more the second time. A first viewing will be too distracted by the idiot, low-brow humor, curiously, unnecessarily bloody violence, and fatiguing run-time. The second time through, you can ignore those elements and concentrate on the political satire and mockery of the regime, the elements that lead to the Sony hack.
The Hack of Sony Only Widened the Film’s Reach
Whether North Korea perpetrated the hack is still up for debate. The director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and President Obama have repeatedly laid the blame on Pyongyang, and certainly we know that North Korea has hacked South Korean institutions, such as banks and the power industry, in the past. My own sense is that the perpetrator was North Korea – even if the actual breach was farmed out to a ‘hacktivist’ third party – and that this film was a uniquely important target for two reasons:
First, it portrays the death, graphically, of Kim Jong Un. This is uniquely provocative. I cannot think of another major film that portrays the death of a living leader (one possible exception). In retrospect, it is rather amazing that a plot like that got green-lighted at all. No one at Sony thought it would be pretty risky to show the violent death of a living totalitarian as a (poorly constructed) joke?
Second, North Korea is a neo-patrimonial monarchy built around a sun-king cult, so anything that so blatantly slurs the Kims’ ‘dignity’ is a threat. Political satire is ideologically incompatible with totalitarianism. The Kims are not just the leadership; they are a royal family, so amazing and all-knowing that the propaganda apparatus treats them as semi-divine. This the root of the running joke in the film about Kim Jong Un not defecating or urinating. So holy are the Kims, that North Korean defectors in the South report believing that they did not use the toilet.
Similarly, when I visited the Pyongyang Metro Museum, the water ladle from which Kim Il Sung had drunk on the work site had been saved and sealed under glass for forty years as a holy relic (the North Korean version of the holy grail). The seat of the first subway car on which he had sat had been cut out of the cabin and also preserved under glass. We even visited roped-off benches or look-outs where one of the Kims had sat or stood. The film directly mocks this god-image with its portrayal of Kim Jong Un as a spoiled, boozing, cigar-chomping playboy (which is probably pretty accurate).
Finally, the hack also showed how isolated and out of touch from the modern world of instant communication North Korea really is. The petulant, hyper-sensitive sun-king may have wanted to block the film’s many slights, but as Ty Burr of the Boston Globe noted in his review, the North Korean hack insured overnight a huge audience for an otherwise forgettable, mediocre film.
Movies like this normally do not make into the Asian film market, where ‘cultural protection’ quotas mean Hollywood usually chooses only to release its mega-hit franchise films (Harry Potter, Avatar, and so on). And in South Korea, foreign films and games that explicitly deal with North Korea are sometimes banned (as the game Homefront was several years ago). More generally, it is hard to image a movie with the bizarre mix of frat-boy style humor and North Korea really playing well anywhere. (One wonders who was the originally intended audience for this oddball movie.) Had the North not attacked Sony, the film would have disappeared along with all the other idiot North Korea movies Hollywood pumps out. No one remembers Olympus has Fallen, but now a global audience is pirating The Interview, including both North and South Koreans.
If Only the Film itself were Better
The film’s biggest problem, the reason it is such a flawed banner for artistic freedom and the rejection of totalitarian bullying, is because it is so weak as movie, even as a comedy. This is not the North Korean analogue of The Great Dictator. It is just not very good, even by its own premises:
The set-up is preposterous. Fluff western journalists do not get to meet dictators. There is no internal faction waiting to take over if only we could push Kim out of the way. US drones and commandos are not operating in North Korea. The war at the film’s end would be a horrible. bloody mess, that would not result in pretty women being elected, and so on. Whatever.
The jokes are strained, juvenile, and really start to fail about an hour or so of the same schtick: basically, laughs come from James Franco’s character acting out, which eventually gets repetitive. Most of the jokes are of the guys-behaving-badly sort that drunk college buddies would find hysterical, but they rest of us grew out of. So the run-time drags after awhile.
The graphic, bloody violence at the end of the film is totally unanticipated and nearly wrecks the movie. One minute we are laughing at mildly funny, frat-boy humor about sex and partying, as we might have back in college. The next minute we are expected to laugh (I think) when Kim Jong Un shoots a flunkey, or characters bite each others’ fingers off in a bloody spray that is supposed to be some bizarre reference to the Lord of the Rings (yes, really). It is so incongruous – and weird and unfunny – it almost sinks the film’s intended comedic tone.
The scatological humor feels really out of place for a topic as grim as North Korea. Indeed, one has to wonder what kind of producer or writer thought that burp-and-fart slapstick about the worst country on earth would make for great comedy, or be morally comfortable to viewers with some knowledge of the subject. (Again, I keep wondering who was the original intended audience for a film with such a bizarre mix of elements.) It is correct that Charlie Chaplin made the (vastly superior) Great Dictator mocking Hitler and Mussolini when they were alive. But Chaplin also said after the truth of the Holocaust was revealed that he would not have made the movie had he known. The Interview’s idiot frat-boy tone is hard to swallow at the same time they are referencing concentration camps in the script.
Laughing at North Korea is morally awkward at best, so writers need to be a lot more intelligent and nuanced about it than just throwing sex jokes at the screen. It’s too bad actually; we could use a Great Dictator-quality satire of the DPRK.
If you are genuinely interested in the DPRK in film, try here.