Only one foreign rock band has ever performed in North Korea. Any guesses? Here’s a hint: Instead of thinking about the musicians who Kim Jong-un would invite to his tetchy hermit kingdom, try thinking about the musicians who might actually take him up on the offer. U2? No. Kid Rock? It’s a toss-up. The Slovenian art band Laibach, who emerged from the ashes of communist Yugoslavia and like to parody fascist regimes by adopting all of their favorite party tricks (sometimes with such a straight face that they’re accused of being Nazis themselves)? Absolutely.
And so, in August 2015, the current members of the Laibach collective flew to Pyongyang International Airport and prepared to play a concert in honor of the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule. Arranged by director Morten Traavik, a Fincher-like force of nature who’d orchestrated a number of trips to Pyongyang in the past, the agenda was pretty standard for a visit to the hermit kingdom: Laibach would tour the capital for a few days (never straying from their nervous minders), enjoy some highly choreographed state propaganda, and then return the favor with a cultural offering of their own. The concert itself was to consist of songs from “The Sound of Music” — Laibach is famous for lacquering golden oldies with a Rammstein polish — the broad and bucolic lyrics of which share an uncanny resemblance to the cultish folk tunes that North Koreans are taught from birth. What could go wrong?
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These days, it almost feels like Westerners are only allowed a look inside the world’s most secretive country if they promise to make a documentary about their trip, and “Liberation Day” — despite the zaniness of its premise — will definitely seem familiar to anyone who’s seen “A State of Mind” or “The Red Chapel” or any of the various different Vice programs in which some hapless white kid goes to gawk at Pyongyang. But this strange film has one unique advantage: In keeping with the ambiguity of the Laibach brand, Traavik explicitly acknowledges the ethical dilemma of portraying a dictatorship on its terms. And he doesn’t really care. “I’m not interested in peace,” the director bluntly declares, “I’m interested in truth.”
And he finds it — some of it, anyway. He validates Laibach’s approach, at the very least. “All art is subject to political manipulation,” reads the Laibach quote that opens the film, “except that which speaks the language of the same manipulation.” Needless to say, the band has a fluent understanding of Kim Jong-un’s mother tongue. North Korea is a prime staging ground for the group’s collectivist shtick, as the place is so removed from the outside world that many of the people who live there may not even recognize the full extent of their oppression. It’s an almost impossibly perfect venue for provocateurs who refuse to acknowledge whether or not they’re part of the joke, who march with their boots in lockstep and their tongues in cheek. When one of the musicians laments the fact that football games and rock concerts are the last remaining arenas of mass worship, it almost sounds like there’s a trace of sincerity in his voice.
But the North Korean side of things is slippery as well, as it turns out the host country won’t be an easy mark (if, in fact, they’re actually the butt of the joke). The film’s most extraordinarily uncomfortable scene finds Laibach being welcomed to Pyongyang with an elaborate dinner, at which a government official stands up and reads a speech accusing his guests of being evil pornographers who make terrible music. The point is clear: Kim Jong-un might starve his citizens of information (among other things), but his wifi works just fine. He knows what there is to know, and he shows foreigners only what he wants them to see. And yet, the classic Laibach credo is that “our only responsibility is to remain irresponsible,” and so the show goes on.
First, however, are the tech rehearsals. Lots and lots of tech rehearsals. And as interesting as it is to watch European roadies haggle with North Korean censors, there’s only so many times you can listen to different versions of the same conversation. The tedium is exacerbated by how severely Traavik underutilizes his zany cast of characters, the director relegating Laibach to the sidelines and asserting himself as the frustrated hero who’s just trying to stage a good concert. Especially absent is Laibach frontman Milan Fras, a strongman figure whose singing voice is so gravelly that you could probably pave a driveway with his saliva (his rendition of a North Korean folksong legitimately terrifies Laibach’s test audience).
Rather than spend more time with the band, Traavik tries to milk additional drama from North Korea’s diplomatic tensions. “Liberation Day” touches on the late Otto Warmbier so briefly that it feels insulting to include him it all, and the action it chronicles along the DMZ — where a North Korean landmine has wounded a few South Korean soldiers — seems quaint in light of Trump-era hostilities.
Fortunately, the show is worth the wait. More specifically, the response the show inspires is worth the wait. Watching the North Korean audience react to Laibach’s industrial cover of “Do-Re-Mi,” members of the crowd involuntarily (and individually) smiling or plugging their ears or nodding along in approval, the film makes its point: Holding up a mirror is the only way for oppressed people to see themselves clearly.
“Liberation Day” is now playing in theaters.