The Juche Idea:
Wow, I feel as though I've just sat through an hour-long in-joke shared by a group of people I don't know. I'm resisting the urge to reread the DVD packaging, and I'm certainly not hitting the extras yet, since I hope I don't need an education on a particular subject in order to comprehend a movie. Jim Finn's hyper-obtuse mockumentary appears to tackle North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's fascination with movies, a fascination codified in terms of the Juche Idea. The Juche Idea is Jong Il's political thesis of self-reliance and the notion that the population of North Korea is responsible for the country's development. If that sounds like the basis for a laugh riot, (or even two chuckles) then you are part of a group that really understands North Korea better than probably anybody else, or you're a fan of humor that's so dry it already combusted.
Aside from it being almost incomprehensible, a troubling aspect of The Juche Idea comes from understanding the point of the whole thing. While purportedly lampooning Jong Il's love of the movies, Juche seems to basically make fun of North Korea in toto. I can think of few movies that target an entire country as a subject of satire, (the self-deprecating masterstroke Team America being the only one that leaps to mind) so picking on North Korea just seems obvious and a little misguided. But let's try to understand, anyway.
Juche starts with interviews on a farm housing international artists-in-residence. This in itself is certainly quite the rarified bit of humor, and is played so straight it's a relatively believable conceit. Consider that the artist tracked is meant to be a former South Korean national who moved to Japan and then North Korea. This isn't so far beyond the pale, actually. (And I can't believe I know about this, so see my review for Dear Pyongyang if you're still gung-ho to try The Juche Idea.) We're treated to dull interview questions that go through two translations and are then subtitled, a great way to burn up time and overload the viewer with tasks - which is usually comedy gold, isn't it?
Soon split-screen tactics emerge, as screen-left lights up with text of Jong Il's thoughts on film and the Juche Idea, on screen-right we can watch clips from old North Korean movies. Aside from looking astoundingly dull, these movies are subtitled as well, so we can have fun reading two things at the same time, neither of which is remotely entertaining! We learn that these sequences, and those of a really poor language instruction video, are made by one of the artists-in-residence, whom answers oh-so-slightly amusing questions (barely) with seemingly sincere answers. The language videos are the funniest things on display. But are, surprisingly, a little hard to understand. During these videos, titled 'English as a Socialist Language,' a native Korean speaker and a native Russian speaker have odd conversations in heavily accented English. Exchanges may culminate in talk of irritable bowels and hospital accommodations. The speakers are framed oddly in front of seemingly meaningless backgrounds (including at one point Cascade Head from the Oregon coast). Since what is spoken is generally not traditionally funny, we're left to wonder if we're supposed to laugh at the goofy accents or the ineptitude of the filmmaker. Neither option is very appealing, however, so our slight bemusement comes with a tiny side order of shame.
In short, I have little idea what I've just watched; I'm confused as to what I'm supposed to find funny, I don't feel like I've learned a hell of a lot about North Korea or the Juche Idea, and I don't know if that's the point anyway. Maybe I'm just a dumb American, but I'd reckon this movie ought to be reserved solely for those taking a college course on North Korean politics and cinema - a truly limited fan base, but they'll have an easier time understanding the jokes than I did.
At a widescreen 1.85:1 ratio, Juche shows its low budget roots. While colors are snappy and bright, much footage - especially exteriors - is digital-harsh, with bunches of aliasing whenever a straight edge comes in frame. Obviously vintage footage and old Korean movies vary in degree of softness, grain, noise and damage.
Stereo Audio is in Korean, Bulgarian, and English, with English Subtitles. Audio is loud and clear, even vintage audio from Korean propaganda songs sounds nice and damage free. Dynamic range is a bit limited to mid and upper registers, and no flash has been applied to the soundscape, but it gets the job done.
Of course extras deepen your understanding and appreciation of The Juche Idea somewhat - but as my painting instructors always said, "you won't be right there to explain your painting to a viewer, so if it doesn't work on its own, it doesn't work." First in helping to understand Jim Finn, are The Short Films of Jim Finn, three arch mini-treats that range from two to ten minutes. From dry and odd topics, like some kind of mystical rat, to curious deconstructions of political propaganda techniques (Decision '80) Finn's works combine stock footage with cheeky narration or inappropriate soundtracks to create weird feelings. Finn also provides a Commentary Track, in which the director explains a whole heck of a lot about what he's doing and where he's coming from, while also delving into geek-itude and normal BTS stuff. It's not the warmest commentary track out there, and taken in context is nonetheless still a bit difficult to approach, but it will absolutely help to interpret the film. 16 minutes of Deleted Scenes and Theatrical Trailers complete the package.
Deconstructionist propaganda comedy is the game, and Jim Finn is the name. Those in on the political ideologies of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and the Juche Idea as it relates to the despot's love of film will get the most out of this near-impenetrable mockumentary. It's not exactly high concept, and will challenge even the most intellectually stout viewer. I've never played this card before, but in light of a some glowing reviews from high-falutin' sources, I'm going to simply say this is a movie for the Intelligentsia. Ambiguously goofy elements create discomfort as they rub up against arid pilings-on of subtitles and lengthy translations. Even prepared by the DVD box claiming The Juche Idea is "brilliant" and "like an SNL sketch," I struggled to get it. Rent It to add to your specialized college curriculum.
- Kurt Dahlke
~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com