With Sony Pictures and theater owners,bowing to threats from hackers who have been linked to the North Korean government, “The Interview” may be buried for good. (VOD and home video releases have been ruled out, according to the Hollywood Reporter’s Matt Belloni, because Sony will get a more generous payout from its insurance company if it can claim a total loss.) But there are plenty of movies about North Korea you can still see, none of which stage the assassination of the country’s leader as a gross-out comic spectacle. “The Interview,” according to the critics who’ve seen it, plays the country’s totalitarian suppression for laughs, which is, after all, what comedies do, but there’s a lot to learn about this isolated society, not just to laugh at.
The Red Chapel (available via Netflix Instant)
Eric Kohn, Indiewire:
In 2006, Danish journalist and filmmaker Mads Brügger went to North Korea with two performers, Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell, to reveal the corruption of the country’s censorship up close. The ruse was an elaborate combination of documentary exposé, performance art and advocacy: Jul, a noted Danish actor, and Nossell, a “spastic” stand-up comic whose speech impairments make his words difficult to decipher in any language, would perform a play for Korean locals approved by the government. Through covert messages, they would reveal a dangerous culture of repression. The result, assembled into the feature-length documentary “The Red Chapel,” plays like slapstick espionage in non-fiction terms—an utterly, absurd yet wholly original portrait of totalitarianism that’s at once unsettling and hilarious.
Crossing the Line (available via Netflix Instant)
Bruce Bennett, New York Sun
The story of James Joseph Dresnok, a Virginia-born U.S. Army PFC who in 1962 walked off his post in the demilitarized zone that separates North from South Korea, and defected to the communist North…. Like any child of serial abuse, the line between Mr. Dresnok’s self-love and self-loathing is a thin one. The persona that he has built during his four decades of exile, decades which “Crossing the Line” evenhandedly presents, is worthy of Werner Herzog’s delusional hero-victims. In “Crossing the Line,” Mr. Dresnok’s personality is so vivid because his character is as deeply flawed as his choices have been.
The Juche Idea (available via Netflix Instant)
Michael Tully, Hammer to Nail
With Kim Jong Il and North Korea, [Jim] Finn has found a boundlessly rich target, but he doesn’t just go after Jong Il in “The Juche Idea” — he points his pesky fingers in many different directions. Through laughably stilted and shoddy examples of the work being produced in that fake artist retreat, the “Juche Farm Residency,” Finn is able to poke fun at America (or at least America as its detractors see it). By choosing to make his subject at the fake retreat a young artist who doesn’t seem to know exactly what she’s saying with her work, he lampoons not just the emptiness that abounds in so many artists like this one, but he makes a critique about artist colonies themselves. And by splitting the screen to show Jong Il’s lofty quotes about the power of cinema next to footage of gaudy North Korean melodramas that contradict his words—not to mention turning newsreel footage of old government parades and marches into splashy spectacles of big-screen entertainment—yes, Jong Il and North Korea are painted in a silly light. But all this picking is never bitter, for it is quite obvious that Finn is genuinely infatuated with kitsch and how political ideologies shape our world.
Seoul Train (available on DVD)
Curt Holman, Creative Loafing
North Korea suffers from a brutal dictatorship and massive famine, but if its freedom-seeking citizens illegally make their way to China, the communist authorities will arrest and deport them back home, where defection is a capital offense “Seoul Train” provides snapshots of an “underground railroad” created by multinational activists to spirit these refugees to a safer country…. People on the run don’t have the luxury of extensive on-camera interviews, which could literally jeopardize their lives if seen by the wrong eyes. “Seoul Train” nevertheless speaks with undeniable passion and presents some stranger-than-fiction twists: one North Korean family’s unexpected happy ending offers the proverbial exception that proves the rule.
A State of Mind (available on DVD)
Noel Murray, A.V. Club
The title of Daniel Gordon’s documentary “A State of Mind” refers both to the will of two young North Korean gymnasts and to North Korea itself…. Even though Gordon deploys the usual authoritarian British documentary style — complete with know-it-all narration — he avoids passing judgment. He’s clearly fascinated by the enthusiasm and dedication of his hosts, who need to believe that their leaders mean well. Unlike the athletes and artists of the former Soviet Bloc, these girls and their families aren’t cynics. “A State of Mind” was beautifully shot and crisply edited to emphasize the Mass Games’ pageantry, but amid the synchronized blocks of performers, Gordon singles out the cranky coaches and giggling schoolgirls, subtly emphasizing how the individual endures even when she’s trying hard not to.
Team America: World Police (Available via Netflix Instant and other streaming providers)