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.