‘I have seen many American movies but this is the first time I've seen this kind of shit.’
By the end of 2014, everybody in the world had said their piece on the controversial James Franco and Seth Rogen film The Interview. Is it offensive? Should it be banned? Is America committing an "act of war" just by making a movie that about assassinating North Korean leader Kim Jong-un? Typically, the only people left out of the conversation were actual North Koreans.
I teach English to North Korean defectors living in New Malden, a suburb of southwest London. Two of them were planning to watch the film anyway, so I asked if I could join them. We meet at the offices of Free NK newspaper, described on its English website as "a newspaper of hope and democracy with the goal of liberating the people of North Korea suffering in distress". My student Kim Joo-il founded the newspaper after escaping from North Korea in 2005.
Joo-il joined the army as a teenager. As the famine of the 1990s and 2000s took its toll, soldiers deserted their units to try and escape starvation. Joo-il’s job as captain was to track them down. Most North Koreans are not allowed to travel. This, combined with a lifetime of government propaganda, means that they are unaware of the situation outside their hometowns. While Joo-il was travelling around North Korea in search of deserters, he realised that people were starving everywhere. Every train station had piles of bodies lying around.
He knew something was wrong. But what really triggered his decision to escape was a trip home. To welcome him back, his sister gave him a meal of rice, meaning that her own family had to go without. A few days later, Joo Il’s starving niece stumbled across some raw corn and ate it. It swelled up in her stomach and killed her. She was four years old.
In 2005 Joo-il was sent to Hamgyong province, near the Chinese border. He knew this was his one opportunity to escape. He waited for a cloudy night and crept past border guards to swim across the Yalu river, arriving in China four hours later. Joo-il went to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand before being granted asylum in the UK, and finally settling in New Malden. His family in North Korea are constantly watched by the government.
Joo-il tells me through Seonju, our South Korean translator: "I don’t really want to watch this film. But after all the media attention and the hacking incident, I wondered what the controversy was about." His friend, another defector who works at the Korean supermarket next door, doesn’t turn up at the last minute.
This was probably a wise decision.
Joo-il, Seonju and I proceed to sit through all 112 minutes of The Interview in awkward silence. As the only Westerner in the room, I am painfully aware of the lazy Asian jokes, stereotypes and cardboard North Korean characters. Constant crude sex jokes, combined with the high-ranking female Korean official’s inexplicable horniness for Seth Rogen made for a distinct "watching Masters of Sex with your grandparents" vibe.
The only laugh comes from Seonju, when Seth Rogen falls out a window. Though that might have been a cough. When Kim Jong-un is finally blown up in a much-discussed helicoptor scene, I look over and see Joo-il yawning. I’m pretty sure that two women and a 41-year-old North Korean defector were not the target audience for this film.
"By making a film about the assassination of Kim Jong Un, I think Sony Pictures deliberately set out to create a media storm," Joo-il says afterwards. "With this subject matter, it could be an effective film, but I’m disappointed. Maybe Sony paid the North Korean government to create a scandal."
Joo-il is also unconcerned by Sony Pictures Entertainment’s decision to cancel the release in cinemas. "Sony Pictures Entertainment is a private company," he explains. "They can do what they want. Whether they choose to release it or not, it’s OK it’s not an important point."
So does he see The Interview having any positive impact for the people of North Korea? "It cannot help us to understand North Korean people," he tells me. "Not in a serious way. And it will not have any impact on spurring western governments or the UN to take action either against the North Korean government or for the North Korean people."
Thrown in with the smutty one-liners and "Frosty Nixon" (Frost/Nixon, geddit?) gags, there's a running joke that Kim Jong-un is scared people will think he’s gay because he likes Katy Perry and cocktails. According to Joo-il, nothing about the film would chime with ordinary people in North Korea.
"North Korea is a closed society," Joo-il explains. "Our culture is influenced by Confucian values of reverence and respect. The crude sexual content would get an adverse reaction. Most North Korean people wouldn’t even understand the concept of homosexuality."
In a recent Good Morning America interview, Seth Rogen said: “In the movie we go to great lengths to separate the regime that rules North Korea with the North Korean people themselves. And they are not bad; they are the victims of a horrible situation. Part of me thinks that they themselves would really enjoy the movie. Maybe. Who knows? I wonder if we'll ever find out."
"I myself am a defector," Joo-ill says. "But when I watched this film, I felt insulted. I understand it’s a comedy, it’s not serious. But even though they are laughing, it demeans North Korean people."
He adds that he has read reports that defectors in South Korea have sent copies of the movies to their relatives in North Korea via instant messaging – but after seeing the movie himself, Joo-il believes these reports are untrue. "I heard Americans know little about North Korea," he says. "North Koreans are always portrayed as obedient robots. So with all the vulgar words, it’s like there is a subtext which demeans Korean people. In this movie it looks like we are too stupid to realise our government is bad."
As for those plans to airdrop copies of the film over North Korea? "This idea would just be for show, there would be no positive effect." And no, cultural differences aren't what's stopping Joo-il from enjoying The Interview. "Actually," he says, "I have seen many American movies but this is the first time I’ve seen this kind of shit."
Joo-il specifically singles out the moment where Franco’s character tells his new puppy, “We’re going to America, where they don’t eat dogs”. Here there is a moment of confusion as Seonju, our interpretor, had fallen asleep and missed this obviously riveting part of the movie. But were she awake, she tells me, she would also find this offensive. (She loves dogs.)
Punchlines about dog-eating Koreans isn't satire – and it's definitely not the kind of comedy that disarms a feared dictator. I ask Joo-il if North Korea could flip the tables on Sony and make a comedy about assassinating Obama could work in North Korea. He muses: "In North Korea all visual media; art, theatre and cinema comes from the central government. There is no cultural code whereby people could enjoy the assassination of Obama in the form of comedy. Maybe there could be a serious film, designed to arouse North Korean people’s rage."
But maybe this won’t be necessary. As Joo-il puts it: “If they spread The Interview in North Korea, it will make people hate America much much more."