Monday, October 16, 2017

Liberation Day: Back in the DPRK

During the early 1980s, the very name of the Slovenian industrial metal-avant-garde band Laibach was declared illegal by the Communist government. (It happened to be the German name of Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital.) You would therefore expect they would be the last rock band that would agree to perform in North Korea, one of the last remaining Communist regimes. Yet, they signed on for the unlikely gig, presumably because they appreciated both the irony and the potential publicity. As if Pyongyang were not surreal enough, the band infamous for their “satirical” crypto-fascist stylings came to rock the house, but satisfying the censors would be quite the adventure, duly documented in Ugis Olte & Morten Traavik’s Liberation Day (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Perhaps, you are thinking: “wait, haven’t I heard this joke before?” Yes, Mads Brügger and his co-conspirators made the North Korean censors squirm with their proposed good will variety show,documented in Red Chapel. The difference is Laibach and show producer-co-director Traavik really wanted to stage a serious concert—so much so, they were willing to make numerous concessions to the censors and their minders.

Of course, reality frequently crashes their party, starting from day one, when a high-ranking apparatchik basically calls them fascist pigs at their welcoming banquet. They should have said takes one to know one, but instead Traavik claims the band is constantly misrepresented in the media, just like the peace-loving state of North Korea, so they therefore share a kinship.

The extent to which the band is willing to compromise their artistic integrity for the sake of the concert is frankly disappointing. Seriously, you guys used to give Tito the finger. Show some nihilistic contempt for authority. Frontline estimates one out of every one hundred North Koreans is a political prisoner and entire families--two generations in each direction--routinely condemned to concentration camps for one member's thought crimes. Yet, Laibach obediently minds their minders ignores this reality. That's not iconoclasm, its servility.

Still, you have to gawk at some of the spectacle, including Laibach performing their satanic-sounding Sound of Music covers, with the full approval of the censorship bureau. Apparently, the Julie Andrews movie is a staple of North Korean television, but good luck collecting those residuals.

There are some mind-blowing moments in Liberation that remind us how weird our world truly is. However, the absence of a Brügger-like figure and his constant ironic commentary and reality checks is keenly felt. Brügger took his crew to North Korea to subvert the totalitarian regime, whereas Traavik set out to capitalize off it. Big difference. Check out Red Chapel before you even think of watching Liberation (it streams on Amazon Prime). There is plenty of weird sights to behold, but ultimately Liberation Day is disappointingly well-behaved when it opens this Wednesday (10/18) in New York, at Film Forum.