February 17, 2013

Kimjongilia: The Flower of Kim Jong Il: Dancing on the DMZ

Kimjongilia is one weird-ass documentary. Not content to only serve up "talking head"-style interviews with people who have escaped from North Korea, director NC Heikin splices up the talk with some of her own modern dance sequences and some homegrown movie/TV clips from the hermit nation. If you're wondering how such a strange structure came to be, consider this: Heikin is a dancer-choreographer as well as a filmmaker. Unconventional? Yes. But so is every documentary about North Korea. Since you can't legally bring cameras inside the country, filmmakers are forced to be inventive both in how they get their footage and how they present it. And to be honest, Heikin's robotic dances inspired by Korea's automaton crossing-guards are a lot more chilling than the slow motion sections of Pieter Fleury's Day in the Life or Yang Yong-hi's distasteful interrogation of her father in Dear Pyongyang.

Not all Heikin's kinesthetic commentary is that effective but no matter. The muscle of Kimjongilia remains its very personal confessions from which we learn of a soldier who slid under barbed wire (along with his friend who didn't make it), a woman carried across the Chinese border (by a brother who also didn't make it) and a man who took his entire family across the water to South Korea. (Against all odds, they made it!) Every story is gripping, especially when you consider that escape isn't just dangerous for the defector but for all the members of the defector's family as well. (Three generations of relatives are imprisoned in labor camps for the rest of their lives when someone defects.) To say that these refugees are universally haunted would be an understatement.

Famine. Fascism. Fanaticism. You can see why some attempt to escape despite the cost. One small compensation: In a culture of paranoia, everything is suspect. Which means that imprisoned relatives never really know for sure why they've ended up in Hell. Maybe it was something they said, something they didn't say, something they did or something they didn't do. They'll never know for sure. And that's a small blessing for those who have left them behind. A very small one.

February 10, 2013

Texture of Skin: Memories of Other People Having Sex

Porn has a reputation for being both forgettable (because it typically doesn't invest much in its story) or unforgettable (because it sometimes shows explicit acts that you may not be able to get out of your head afterward). There are skin flicks that evaporate upon ending and there are skin flicks that stick in the memory until you're dead. Which brings me to Texture of Skin, a truly boring yet memorable piece of soft core Korean erotica that I saw nearly a year ago on cable TV. The movie's lasting power isn't completely due to lead actor Kim Yun-tae's truly beautifully muscled ass, although it doesn't hurt either. It's really more the movie's final scene in which Tae's character, a photographer having an extramarital affair with an old friend (Kim Joo-ryeong), faces a bedroom mirror in which he encounters not himself but a topless woman. Upon first viewing, I had vague ideas of what that jarring reflection might mean: something about identity or haunting or gender fluidity. I know that flashbacks of a rape were part of the story but to be honest, Texture of Skin didn't hold my attention most of the time so I easily missed most of the clues.

And is it really worth thinking about? A brief investigation online reminds me that a car crash figures into the plot as does a random rule that states the two main characters have agreed to have sex only nine times. But I can't say that brings me any closer to understanding that final disjuncture. Soft core movies pretend to have stories but generally speaking they're just porn with greater distribution potential. It's hard to believe that director Lee Sung-gang really felt he had a tale to tell. Then again, his filmography is hardly a list of smut. He's the same writer-director behind the animated feature My Beautiful Girl, Mari, which, while not a favorite of mine, surely reflects artistic aspirations. Do Lee and his stars, Tae and Kim, all think of this as an art house pic? How did Lee get actors with lengthy resumes -- Myeong Gye-nam and Lee Dae-yeon -- to appear in cameos despite the salacious nature of the script? Like the topless woman, these remain mysteries to me.

If you're looking for something a little racy, I'd say try Hera Purple: Devil Goddess, My Heart Beats, or hottest of all, A Frozen Flower, a movie that actually made me blush. (The dangers of seeing a movie with a former personal trainer are hereby documented.)

February 3, 2013

National Geographic Explorer: Inside North Korea - Finally, a Look Behind the Curtain

Inside North Korea, the short documentary by the folks at National Geographic, is a really good snapshot of the most enigmatic country on Earth. Dubbed "the hermit nation," North Korea has long closed its borders to the outside world. As such, it remains what reporter Lisa Ling dubs "an intelligence black hole." Despite existing without cell phones or internet access, the Communist stronghold is hardly an industrial throwback given its nuclear missiles and its possession of the fourth largest military in the world. How'd it get this way? And how has it managed to sustain its completely xenophobic existence?

In a way, part of this totalitarian regime's success is due to the evangelical fervor of its populace. Substitute "Jesus" for "Our Great Leader" and the extreme devotion to the Kim family suddenly isn't so inexplicable. And why shouldn't Kim Jong Il, and his father Kim Il-sung before him, inspire reverence? Both have instilled the fear of God into their population by threatening lifelong prison sentences to extended family members of people who defect or fail to exhibit the requisite loyalty and devotion. And both have also stood up to the U.S. and the rest of the world and said "Screw you!" after being enslaved by the Japanese for the first half of the century and suffered through a million gallons of napalm in the Korean War. This adamant self-sufficiency, this refusal to accept "conditional" help from abroad may lead to famines that decimate the population but it also instills a certain amount of patriotic pride.

Ling rightly asserts that maybe there's no difference between fear and belief here, maybe nobody's lying because everybody's too scared to entertain a different idea. This is a very Old Testament empire. And if there's a certain short-sightedness for North Korea in refusing to be cooperative with anyone, at least they've got Dr. Sanduk Ruit from India to perform 1000 cataract surgeries in 10 days. (This medical expedition is what allows Ling and company to get cameras over the border so she can visit what's clearly a "model" family putting on a talent show to her dismay.)

Footnote: Years later, journalist Laura Ling, Lisa's sister, was detained in North Korea for 140 days -- a none-too-subtle way to let Lisa know: Don't mess with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea!