People cannot eat slogans, yet that is all Kim Jong-il’s North Korean regime provides a steady diet of. Blunt instruments of social control, the omnipresent propaganda posters are especially painful for one grieving father to behold in John Arlotto’s Deface (trailer here), a devastating rejoinder to DPRK propaganda films (like Centre Forward), which screens as part of the Shorts 1 program at this year’s Korean American Film Festival (New York).
A widowed father obediently labors for the Communist authorities, undergoing public self-criticism sessions as required, solely for the sake of his sweet-tempered daughter, Kyung-ha. When she also dies of starvation, Sooyoung has nothing left to live for. Ironically, this makes him dangerous in a police state that rules through fear. Using his late daughter’s school paints, Sooyoung defaces Party propaganda, becoming a graffiti truth-teller. It is a small, but meaningful rebellion that naturally provokes harsh counter-measures.
Though filmed entirely in America, the Korean language Deface viscerally captures the look and feel of a hopeless corner of the DPRK. Indeed, the film packs a powerful emotional punch, thanks in good measure to deeply affecting work of Joseph Steven Yang as Sooyoung and young Aira H. Kim as his ill-fated daughter. Deface also boasts a notable supporting cast, including Alexis Rhee (whose credits include Blade Runner’s “Billboard Geisha”) as Sooyoung’s fellow slave (that is the right term), Jeung-un.
Well conceived and executed, Deface ends as it must, given the realities of the gulag nation. Yet, it still manages to hit an inspirational note, without breaking from its established tone or becoming jarringly manipulative. Far more engrossing than most full length features, it is an excellent short. Highly recommended to any and all viewers (especially those who also check out Centre and Red Chapel), the genuinely moving Deface screens twice this Friday (3/18) as part of the Shorts 1 program at the 2011 KAFFNY.