It's reductive, if not simplistic, to label the underground films of Jim Finn as mockumentaries. The word has become synonymous with writer/director Christopher Guest. And while Guest's films (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show) are accessible to mainstream humor lovers, Finn's movies, while similar in form, exist at an experimental remove, attacking Communist and Marxist thought in a fashion that goes beyond comedy and satire and into a singular realm sui generis. In his densely constructed and pretty damn brilliant film The Juche Idea, Finn takes aim at North Korean president Kim Jong-il's theories on cinema and how its ultimate purpose is to advance political ideology and party loyalty. Finn has made a completely legitimate-looking North Korean propaganda film that's heady, deliciously funny and one of the most effective and, oddly enough, informative films ever made about the Hermit Kingdom. If this sounds like the stuff of big city museum screenings, it is. In the film, Finn cleverly speaks of the capitalist artists who "speak to a tiny elite who are open to artistic impulses." But that doesn't make The Juche Idea any less accomplished, and if riches aren't in the cards maybe Finn will get more attention, more money and more opportunity to continue as the sly little bastard of socio-political mockery.
Not an awful lot is known about Kim, but he's definitely an enormous film buff. In the preface to his 1973 stocking stuffer book On the Art of Cinema, which Finn quotes, Kim writes that "the task set before the cinema today is one of contributing to people's development into true Communists." Political and economic self-reliance, the heart of the Juche Idea, is so important to Kim and the use of cinema to spread that gospel is so crucial, that in 1978 the NK government kidnapped South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and forced him to make films for them. From this regrettable crime, Finn concocts his thin narrative. Yoon (Lee Jung Yoon) is a Japanese born resident of South Korea who has come to the North to live in an artist's residency. She picks crops, cleans chicken coops and learns about creating cinema that adheres to actual Juche film edicts like "conflicts should be settled in accordance with the law of class struggle." Yoon's first attempt at a Juche film, called Dentures of Imperialism is deemed not Juche enough. But Yoon, whose time in North Korea is being filmed by a documentary crew, further hones her efforts until it becomes the more party-acceptable The Small Little Teeth of America. The Tiny Dentures of Imperialism. (Sample dialogue: "the day the U.S. capitalist dictatorship is overthrown, the world will sleep through the night.")
That's the general story, although The Juche Idea is hardly classicist filmmaking. Instead, Finn has created an inspiring fusion of content and form that hews closely to the codes of Juche filmmaking, which only serves to reveal how ridiculous those codes are. He works in numerous clips from actual Juche films (that he purchased on eBay). And there's also great vintage footage of Kim staring admiringly at film cameras as well as aerial shots of the North Korean capitol Pyongyang. Finn's wit is sharp, but almost entirely under the table. He doesn't try to one-up Kim's absurdity with more absurdity. The Dear Leader's cinema strictures and hazy film-is-politics philosophies are funny enough played straight, although the series of stilted pro-Communist exchanges between a line-toeing North Korean and a confused Russian visitor is a riotous exception. Oh, and there's also a ticklish Korean language instructional video where the host teaches kids to say "eggs," "mutton" and "Karl Marx was a friend of children."
Finn finds room for some light swipes at American politics, which is easy enough when Kim's go-to propaganda chip is blaming America for his people's woes. Part of Kim's paranoia comes from the Korean peninsula being guarded by around 30,000 American peacekeeping forces, so it's not hard to imagine him sanctioning Yoon's sci-fi epic about an American invasion using "tiny Macarthur nukes." And his invoking of Ronald Reagan's infamous off-the-cuff radio comment that America is "outlawing Russia...we begin bombing in five minutes" indicts Kim's longtime finagling of facts and context and our 40th president, as well. Indeed, there's much going on here, but Finn always stays on-point, never losing sight of his primary target. The Juche Idea is such a perfectly designed piece of mimicry that we forget Kim's reign (and that of his father Kim Il-sung) has resulted in the deaths of countless North Koreans in prison camps and due to famine. But in keeping with the experimental nature of Finn's output, the movie is not an exposé, wake-up call or even a public shaming of Kim. It's a chance for Finn to seamlessly meld his own wild imagination with the codified forms of the NK propaganda film and the documentary. Call it death by a thousand cuts for a political system that's earned the honor of being roundly ridiculed.
Distributor: Anthology Film Archives
Cast: Jung Yoon Lee, Daniela Kostova, Kim Sung
Director/Screenwriter/Producer: Jim Finn
Running time: 62 min.
Release date: Thu, 5/27/10 EXCL. NY