Thursday, October 06, 2011

Totalitarian Kitsch: The Juche Idea

Before Kim Il-sung, mass-murdering megalomania had never been so kitschy. The Kim dynasty’s tyrannous misrule has been marked by imposingly ugly architecture, stilted cinema, and truly bizarre mass “arirang” stadium performances, all of which promoted the so-called Juche Idea, his crypto-Confucian brand of self-isolating socialism. An expatriate leftist South Korean filmmaker takes on the challenge of making Juche propaganda art films for an international audience, when not weeding the vegetable patch of a North Korean arts collective in The Juche Idea (trailer here), Jim Finn’s experimental mockumentary mash-up, now available on DVD.

Before he bravely led the proletariat into the future, the crown prince Kim Jong-il wrote North Korea’s definitive book on film studies. Not surprisingly, he concluded any honest, class conscious film should scrupulously adhere to his father’s Juche Idea concepts. DPRK films tended to be a wee bit formulaic as a result, typically culminating with a tearful self-criticism session and a vow to rededicate one’s self to Communist Party, as Finn illustrates with several clips crying out for the Crow and Tom Servo treatment.

As Yoon Yung Lee, the filmmaker-in-residence, splices together her strange Chuck Workman-like Juche films, the insular nature of the North’s ideology-driven culture becomes inescapably obvious. As soon as any distance is applied to the cheesy visuals and overblown synchronized dance numbers, irony rushes in like air into a vacuum. There is also an unexpected abundance of accordion music to heighten the surreal vibe of it all.

Finn never directly addresses the brutal reality of DPRK concentration camps, intrusive secret police, and widespread famine. As a result, Juche Idea really ought to be seen in conjunction with other North Korean documentaries, like Mads Brügger’s fearlessly subversive Red Chapel, which Lorber Films has also just released on DVD. Unlike the play-it-safe “Yes Men,” Brügger and his colleagues punk a target that wields absolute, unchecked power, on its own turf. You have yet to truly live until you have witnessed a pair of Danish-Korean comedians perform a slapstick rendition of “Wonderwall” for an audience of stone-faced DPRK apparatchik-minders in this mad expose-performance art hybrid.

In contrast, Juche Idea is all about the outrageous over-the-top propaganda serving the Great and Dear Leaders’ personality cults, without any reality-based context. Though it seems hard to miss the joke when a Russian tourist’s loose bowels lead to a lecture on the merits of North Korea’s socialized medicine, some of those protesting downtown might just swallow it whole.

Clearly, Finn is not exactly an underground conservative filmmaker, having also produced the short film Dick Cheney in a Cold, Dark Cell, which should have certainly maintained his standing in the experimental film community. Still, after watching Juche it is clear North Korea is a profoundly scary place, at least by any rational aesthetic standard.

Viewers who missed Brügger’s Chapel in theaters should definitely catch up with it first and then supplement it with Juche Idea’s head-spinning images and sly satire. Though only sixty-two minutes, there are some nice supplements on the DVD, including some deleted scenes, such as a whacked-out Juche comic book given the motion-comic treatment, as well as Finn’s short film Great Man and Cinema, which essentially boils down the essence of Juche Idea to three minutes and forty-nine seconds. Recommended for the ironically-inclined and the propaganda-savvy, Juche Idea and Chapel are easily two of this week’s most notable DVD releases.