May 28, 2017

Aim High in Creation: Australia's Take on North Korean Agit-Prop

Say what you want about Anna Broinowski as a director or a writer or an actress. As a conceptual artist, she's hit a home run with the defiantly quirky Aim High in Creation, a documentary about her creation of a short, political film modeled after the propaganda movies of North Korea. And Broinowski isn't simply sending up the didactic features of the Hermit Kingdom either. She's actually enlisted members of that country's film industry to advise and guide her in her creative process. (How the Hell did she make that happen?!) The final product — viewed at the end of her doc — is better than you might expect, too. Is it as polished as her source material? No, but to their credit, the North Koreans don't disrespect the work either but categorize it as "so Anna" which, in fact, it really is. The reasons it's not slicker ultimately have to do with Broinowski's reluctance to fully invest in their process as is. You could argue that she would've been unwise to do so, too, as it seems beyond unlikely that a North Korean-style epic would play to an Australian audience in the exact same way.

Broinowski, recognizing this, focuses more on the disconnects that happen when trying to bring their method to her homeland: apolitical actors wary of looking foolish; a script that finds its own simplicity ridiculous; a budget that's even more severely constrained. But really Broinowski's just cause — fighting multinationals poisoning the land with only profit as a concern — takes a back seat to another message: That our prejudices about North Korea can only be partially substantiated by reality and that artists around the world share a commonality that defies imposed boundaries. A land with no reality TV, no internet, no product advertisement, no money-grubbing companies influencing all the government's decisions... That doesn't sound so bad, does it? Maybe we have something to learn from North Korea, despite all its well-chronicled shortcomings and problems. Power to the people!

May 21, 2017

The Lovers & the Despot: Live Large

Ross Adam's and Robert Canaan's crazy documentary The Lovers & the Despot tells the type of true story that makes you realize just how incredibly boring your life truly is. First there's glamour: Actress Choi Eun-hee becomes the muse of auteur Shin Sang-ok; together they make such Shin Sang-ok with whom she makes such classics as My Mother and Her Guest, Red Scarf, To the Last Day... There's drama: They marry, adopt two babies, he has an affair (with a younger actress) that produces two children so Choi and Shin get divorced. There's more drama: Choi gets kidnapped by North Korean agents while visiting Hong Kong; Shin gets kidnapped while looking for Choi who has officially "disappeared." Then Kim gets imprisoned for five years in North Korea while Choi's forced to pose for pictures as a model defector. There's more art: Kim's released from prison, the lovers reunite and they make 17 movies in three years while still held captive by dictator Kim Jong-il. (One of those films — Sogum — earns Choi the best actress award at the Moscow International Film Festival.) Then there's even more drama: They defect to the West and set up shop in Hollywood. There's a weird coda: He ends up creating the kid-friendly franchise, his last film being 3 Ninjas Knuckle up.

All of this is fascinating even as we're told in periodic asides that skeptics out there question the veracity of Shin's and Choi's story. What if they made it all up? What if they purposefully defected to the North as a way to resume their romance and revitalize their careers? What if Shin never really was in prison? What if all those shots of Choi smiling are because she really was happy all the time? What if it's all a big lie? But even if that were the truth, theirs would remain a none-the-less fascinating tale. I'd like to say I totally believe Choi whose interviewed extensively for the film. But I have to acknowledge first that she happens to be a great actress. It's either the performance of a lifetime or a lifetime greater than any performance could ever hope to be.

May 10, 2017

Dennis Rodman's Big Bang in PyongYang: Who'll Drink to That?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dennis Rodman burst onto the scene and turned basketball into something unexpectedly exciting to people like me, not through his unrivaled defensive playing but with his highly theatrical unwillingness to toe the line. Simultaneous with the corporate neutering of professional sports and the accompanying blandness of athletes fearful of losing lucrative endorsement deals, Rodman's outrageousness — his fluorescent hair, his body piercings, his flashy wardrobe, his no-fs-to-give commentary — delivered what so many of us want from our celebrities: a greater sense of freedom. Here was a man living on his own terms, as much as he could. As you might expect, it came at great cost.

Watching Dennis Rodman's Big Bang in PyongYang, you realize that while a piranha-like press may not be the cause of the former NBA legend's alcoholism, the systematic scrutiny and savagery have no doubt contributed to it. And yet despite a tabloid presentation that revels in Rodman's self-destructiveness, this documentary also reveals that Rodman's not just some crazed drunk hoping to squeeze that last bit of publicity out of Access Hollywood. Take a look at the former athletes and young players who rally to Rodman's defense when the exhibition match between the US and North Korea that Rodman's orchestrated looks destined to fail. No one throws Rodman under the bus; no one quits. Any complaints are kept behind closed doors. Admittedly, part of that graciousness is due to Charles Smith, his eloquent colleague and a master strategist who understands the larger implications and respects the nobler intentions that underlie this game on a dictator's birthday. But Rodman's colleague feel universally autonomous and his support staff seems to genuinely like him. Because of that, Big Bang doesn't seem to be so much about wrongheadedness, naivete or demonization. It's just another snapshot of the cost of being famous while trying to be true to yourself.

May 5, 2017

Leafie, a Hen Into the Wild: Cartoon Truths

When we first meet Daisy, the awkward but cute, eager-to-please chicken who's caged with hundreds of her kin, all collectively forced to eat the same slop day after day while churning out eggs, she's understandably miserable and in the midst of a hunger strike. She hates the farm. She wants freedom and the great outdoors. She's not about to buy into the tripe tweeted out by one especially annoying little bird out to sell her on the advantages of captivity. She's not that dumb! As metaphors go of being a slave to the system, Leafie is anything but subtle. But thanks to a near-death that gets her dumped in a ditch with other bird carcasses, Daisy's dream becomes a reality. Yet Oh Seong-yun's animated feature is not an upbeat tale about freedom. Daisy's life on the outside is hard. She's ostracized for being different (a barnyard animal!), ends up adopting a duckling (another species!), and is considered — frankly — too loud by her fellow creatures.

Does all this rejection and readjustment ever have her feeling nostalgic for her chicken coop days? Hell no! Freedom is rough but nothing is as bad as living an existence completely dictated by somebody else's demands. So she struts around with a perpetual cold. So she can't stay in one of the nicer neighborhoods. So she's living under the threat of a one-eyed weasel salivating for her and her kid. Anything's better than life in the pen. And that includes death!

Korean Film Caveat: The Netflix version (renamed Daisy) does not provide the option of hearing the original voice actors (who include Moon So-ri and Choi Min-sik, for God's sake). I suppose the demand for children's cartoons in Korean with English subtitles boils down to one person. That's right. Me. Yet there may be a much wider market for Leafie which would include parents eager to turn their kids into vegans. This film might should do the trick.