The Interview: A Review (Updated)

Does The Interview trivialize the suffering of North Koreans?  I’m not sure what you had a right to expect from the likes of Seth Rogen and James Franco, but I’d say it did so less than I expected. A central theme of the film’s climactic scene — Franco’s interview with Kim Jong Un — was hunger, and the contrast between Kim’s obscene wealth and the squalor of his people.

Was The Interview a good parody of North Korea? It was a good enough parody of Pyongyang as the AP shows it, if you believe that that’s North Korea. I agree with Barbara Demick that the film gets quite a few things right. It also gets some things wrong, by understating the percentage of the population that lives hand-to-mouth, and by overstating current estimates of the prison camp population.

That is to say, I do not advise you to cite The Interview as a reference in your Ph.D. dissertation.

On one level, The Interview holds up well, and even borders on brilliance — as a parody of the Americans who go to North Korea, what they’re willing to overlook, and the ethical compromises they’re willing to make. When Franco asks his minder about starvation, she drives him to a store fully stocked with (plastic) food, with a fat kid posted on the sidewalk in front, casually licking a lollipop. For all of Franco’s initial gullibility, he might as well have been an AP correspondent.

The best line in the whole movie? Where James Franco shows Seth Rogen an online news story that Kim Jong Un is a fan of their TV show, and says, “It’s down at the bottom, after all that death camp shit.”

The film fails as a parody of Kim Jong Un. This is not because the idea that His Porcine Majesty listens to Katy Perry is so implausible, but really, was Randall Park the fattest Korean-American actor Seth Rogen could find? And not to be pedantic, but Stalin died in 1953, and the first T-55 tank wasn’t manufactured until five years later.

Those who believe that smuggling or air-dropping The Interview into North Korea would undermine its political system probably overestimate its potential impact on North Koreans. Yes, the idea of assassinating Kim Jong Un will certainly break some barriers in North Korea’s cultural universe. The idea of ridiculing Kim Jong Un may be even more powerful, in its capacity to shatter the myth that he is respected and feared globally. It may be a revelation that he’s ridiculed here. But then, North Koreans will also see the the film showing Americans from Queens to Qandahar watching an interview with Kim Jong Un in rapt attention. I’m not so sure they would.

My guess is that socially conservative North Koreans will be repelled by the film’s crude humor, drug use, promiscuity, and the barely latent bisexuality of Franco’s character. They won’t appreciate the sex scenes, or even the very idea of sex between Koreans and non-Koreans. Whatever the film does for Kim Jong Un’s image, it will reenforce the state’s portrayal of Americans. It will reenforce, in other words, the image of Americans in North Korea that it will also reenforce about Californians in North Dakota.

For an opposing view from a rather well-qualified analyst, see this (actual) interview with Jang Jin Sung. And I suppose it’s fair to keep in mind that many North Koreans have seen enough foreign films to have developed a tolerance for the debasement of our culture.

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As a “South Park” fan, I have a high tolerance for crudeness, but The Interview often exceeded mine. Rogen’s lines of ching-chong pidgin English in his first conversation with his North Korean love interest were off-putting. Future critics will view this as unkindly as they view minstrel shows from a century ago. Borat exceeded my limits by a much wider margin, but the brilliance of Borat’s parody of how the world sees America (and vice versa) still managed to redeem it. One scene in Team America managed to be both the most profane thing I’ve ever seen, and probably the most brilliant since The Life of Brian. There is nothing this good in The Interview.

What redeems The Interview? Aside from its clever parody of North Korea’s foreign collaborators, the best things that can be said of it have nothing to do with its artistic merits. On a very superficial level, The Interview will inform certain demographics, in a very broad sense, about the nature of the North Korean regime. The film — or rather, the way Kim Jong Un reacted to it — has also informed many more of us that this regime is not so easily marginalized and forgotten as a distant threat only to people we don’t care about. That is far better.

The fact that Kim Jong Un didn’t want me to see The Interview was worth the six dollars I paid to see it. The fact that I don’t want Sony to lose money on this film because His Porcine Majesty censored it was worth six dollars. The entertainment value of the film was probably worth six dollars, too. Most of all, the fact that I want the next artist to feel free to make a better parody of North Korea was worth six dollars. Many others have paid far higher prices than this for freedom of expression.

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Update: At The New York Times, Choe Sang Hun interviews North Korean refugees and confirms that The Interview’s humor doesn’t translate well into their dialect. I do care what North Koreans think of the film. R. Elgin expressed one good reason for that: “[T]he only thing worse than living in a murderous, despotic country is having a bad movie made about you while being resigned to live there.”

The other reason is that North Koreans’ reactions will inform us whether to support efforts to smuggle the film into North Korea. I’m all for the principle behind such concepts as “Hack Them Back,” but now that I’ve seen The Interview, I don’t think this particular film is really the best vehicle for achieving the desired effect. The Interview has already exceeded all reasonable expectations for the social good that it would do. It has done that right here, in America, among people who’ve seen it, and also among people who haven’t, but who have heard about how North Korea reacted to it.

Choe then contaminates his story with the opinions of wilting daisies who “feared that the worsening relations between the United States and North Korea over ‘The Interview’ might derail cautious attempts for a warming of ties on the divided Korean Peninsula.” I cannot stress how little I care about the views of those who disapprove of The Interview because it might hurt Kim Jong Un’s feelings, except that it’s useful to know the extent to which these herbivorous, masochistic omegas can proliferate when society interrupts natural selection. People like this don’t say “Je suis Charlie” defiantly, but in the naive belief that it’s a safeword in the dungeon that’s closing in on them.

There is some chance that The Interview will break even. According to The L.A. Times, the film has “generated an impressive $15 million in revenue in its first four days of release online,” and “has since expanded to outlets such as iTunes and VOD services of pay-TV providers.” Since then, that revenue figure has topped the $30 million mark, which is a good start toward recouping the film’s $44 million budget. That estimate is discrepant from another estimate that it cost Sony $80 million “to make and market” the film. And it’s not like Sony should have had to spend $36 million marketing this film.

In addition to those costs, the cyberattack itself cost Sony another $100 million. Of course, it would be more reasonable to view that as the cost of not having good cybersecurity in the first place.

Oh, and I think I know who should have played Kim Jong Un instead of Randall Park. Reading some of the criticism of Cho’s performance, particularly the criticism that it was racist, illustrates how confusing our society’s rules about race have become. I can see why some people would criticize those who make light of North Korea, where there is so much suffering. But let’s make a rule that you don’t get to shout down parodies of North Korea for being tasteless if tomorrow, you’re only going to go right back to forgetting about North Korea.

10 Comments

  1. Good writeup and pretty spot on. Here’s to hoping that whatever Steve Carrell’s movie set in North Korea will get green lighted now as well. The more the general public can learn about what is going on there, even if just to pique curiosity, is a win for the North Korean people.




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  2. The Steve Carrell movie was an adaptation of Pyongyang, which is an interesting graphic novel but doesn’t really tell us much more about the “real” North Korea than The Interview. That was part of the point, of course, but if the movie ever gets made, don’t expect it to fill many of the gaps that Goldberg/Rogen’s efforts left open. (One worrying note was that the film was described as a “thriller,” which the graphic novel certainly wasn’t. Hopefully this was just an erroneous assumption and not the approach the filmmakers were planning to take.)

    As for The Interview, leaving aside Park’s lack of physical resemblance, the film’s take on Kim does have one thing to recommend it: its Kim Jong-un is precisely the sort of youthful, semi-westernized, foreign-pop-culture-devouring figure so many analysts told us would finally “open up” and “reform” North Korea, and maybe the canniest thing the movie does is to show how it’s perfectly possible that Kim could be just that and his father’s son/grandfather’s grandson at the same time: i.e. a youthful, semi-westernized, foreign-pop-culture-devouring dictator who might sooner see his own country destroyed than accept any risk to his own position.




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  3. I liked “Pyongyang” very much. It was full of interesting and redeeming content. It could potentially have much more to say about the reality of North Korea than The Interview.

    Your second paragraph makes an excellent point. I think it ties nicely into my point about some Americans seeing in Kim what they want to see, and missing what they prefer not to see.




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  4. Most North Koreans don’t own a DVD player, thus they couldn’t watch the movie anyway. With regards to the movie, it’s satire, it’s not meant to be taking in any way shape or form seriously, nor is it meant to be an accurate or factual adaption of North Korea or Kimmy.




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  5. Re: the update–

    Since then, that revenue figure has topped the $30 million mark, which is a good start toward recouping the film’s $44 million budget. That estimate is discrepant from another estimate that it cost Sony $80 million “to make and market” the film. And it’s not like Sony should have had to spend $36 million marketing this film.

    When somebody speaks of a film’s “budget,” 99.9% of the time they’re referring only to the cost of finishing the film, without any of the marketing and distribution costs incurred afterwards. Those costs are rarely made public, so it’s hard to say if $36 million (of which $30m was supposedly spent before they pulled it) is really that outrageous. One of the leaked memos showed that Sony proposed spending $37m to market a possible sequel to Pineapple Express, so $36m to market The Interview doesn’t sound implausible.




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  6. That last sentence about “let’s make a rule”, sums up how I feel. Preach it.

    Regarding the movie itself, I had a hard time believing that their hotel room was not bugged. Is that plausible, in your opinion? I think, as a writer, a more creative choice would have been to have the room be bugged forcing them to come up with some sort of “code” while speaking. That could have been hilarious.

    If I was a millionaire, I would want to make a movie based on the book, “Tears of My Soul” about the NK spy. Now THAT’S a movie I want to see.




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  7. On one level, The Interview holds up well, and even borders on brilliance — as a parody of the Americans who go to North Korea, what they’re willing to overlook, and the ethical compromises they’re willing to make –

    What an bunch of hogwash…I’ve visited the place, read almost every book out there, spent 4 years in South Korea (3 North of Seoul and one in Yongsan), know quite a bit about the place. What gives you license to presume you know what kind of people visit the DPRK and what they know, don’t know or overlook.

    Because you have a hardon for the DPRK, we should all have a hardon? The regime disgusts me but I don’t ascribe to you know what is best for me and your bullshit characterizations. You seem to be such a pompous and presumptuous person. I am going to laugh you into the grave when you spend 1/2 your life trying to collapse the place and it outlives you! Get over yourself




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