September 29, 2017

Ask Yourself: Patriotism Up North

"When your hair turns gray, you look back at your past and ask yourself the question: What have you done for the future generation? What have you done for the mother country?"

So starts Pak Jong-ju's North Korean film Ask Yourself and while you might immediately write off this brief introductory voiceover as pure propaganda, I'd like to request that you, my fellow gray-haired readers, ask yourselves this very question. Put aside concerns about which brand of yogurt is going to help you live the longest and which frying pan surface is least likely to lead to early-onset Alzheimer's. Stop looking at your life as a contest about who can rack up the most number of years and instead embrace your remaining time as an opportunity to do good for those we are leaving behind? As to your relationship to your country, can you please drop the "lower taxes" concern for just a moment and ask yourself how you might make the nation better and more worthy of your pride? It's been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country." You can almost hear the knee-jerk response of most people today being simply: "Why?"

Viewed from this perspective, Ask Yourself is a timely, bucolic bit of agit-prop as it confronts personal hypocrisies and the destructive force of egoism while also honoring the beauty of self-sacrifice and the warmth of community. To its credit, its two heroes — a team leader on a government farm and a restless young woman who fears she's throwing her life away there — aren't fully formed ideals we're expected to emulate. They're self-deluding human beings who learn the hard way where their own flaws lie. The happy endings that arrive for both of them may try the nerves of the cynics but when didn't an upbeat movie require some suspension of disbelief.

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