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Liberation Day

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/20/17 02:37:08

"This film about metal band Laibach in North Korea could use more Laibach."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It is, perhaps, unfair to expect "Liberation Day" to be more controversial than it is, at least from one perspective: It is a documentary and it documents, in a manner that seems fair and transparent, and often entertaining. But it's also a part of a larger project, one potentially more subversive in its intent, and watching everyone involved not necessarily be timid but also not be daring makes for a film that perhaps lacks the kick that one about art-metal band Laibach playing a concert in North Korea perhaps should have.

The story made the news in 2015 - part of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's Liberation Day celebrations (marking both Koreas' independence from Chinese and Japanese rule in 1945) would be the country's first-ever concert by a western rock band, made all the more interesting by the fact that the band is Laibach, a band that first rose to prominence in 1980s Yugoslavia and has since built an identity around their use of fascist iconography in a way that often seems to blur the line between satire and endorsement. Oh, and they would be covering songs from The Sound of Music as a part of the show. Even for someone with the sort of experience working with North Korea that producer/director Morten Traavik has, that's got to be a crazy tightrope to walk.

That this is actually Traavik's fifteenth visit to North Korea is a bit of information tossed out relatively casually, followed by some amusing YouTube videos of other projects he worked on there, but it's something that highlights the almost inevitable paradox at the center of this project: The DPRK isn't going to do something like this with someone they don't trust, someone they trust is not going to push back at their demands very much, and as a result, the friction between extremely unconventional artists and an extremely authoritarian government never really materializes. There's some potentially interesting material to be found in some of that lack of conflict - there is talk about how Laibach is a band from a country that no longer exists, with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc meaning these former Yugoslavians are now Slovenian, and member Ivan Novak sees the utopian elements of the place - but Traavik and co-director Ugis Olte don't particularly delve into that, or even counter those musings with how Pyongyang is something of a showcase city that gives visitors a skewed view of the DPRK as a whole.

It's also worth noting that there's perhaps less Laibach in the film than one might perhaps expect - viewers like myself who are not particularly familiar with the band are never given much of a proper introduction to the members beyond vocalist Mina Spiler, described in a title card as the "first lady". She gets attention both as one of the few female members of this mostly-male entourage and for seeming to show the most disappointment and frustration at the cuts the censors make as they rehearse. Most of the rest of the band just seems to be passing through, taking the gig but frustratingly silent on what the show means to them as art. We see more of the roadies trying to handle the tech challenges and a lot more of Traavik, giving us some insight on how to firmly negotiate with the people in charge and the realities of doing an event in North Korea.

And, make no mistake, the practicalities are interesting - watching the Slovenian technicians trying to stage a modern rock concert with projections and complex mixing in a building that, while an upgrade from their anticipated venue, is still basically in the 1950s as far as wiring and technology are concerned, is kind of entertaining, as are the moments when the censors are often pushing back not just on ideological grounds, but based upon the idea that some of the multimedia elements may be too much for the audience to absorb. There's also a fascinating thread briefly touched upon as their translator, Mary Sun Kim, points out how tricky her job is at times as the censors resist "South Korean Dialect", and how the North's isolation means she has to try to express concepts without "loanwords" which have made their way into Korean-as-spoken-in-Seoul from other languages while the North has maintained a sort of linguistic purity.

Eventually, the concert does get played, and it's certainly kind of interesting, although there is at times almost too much going on between the band reinterpreting pop songs and showtunes with their own aesthetic and an utterly bemused Pyongyang audience seemingly not knowing how to process what they're seeing, let alone react in a crowd. Both of those are interesting and entertaining enough on their own, although the pair do not necessarily add to each other. It's also a relatively small finale for something that, at the top, bills itself as "A Documentary Musical".

Perhaps this is a film that will play better to fans of Laibach who already have some sort of baseline for how the members act and their general satirical intent, and maybe it would have had more impact if there hadn't been a half-dozen fairly prominent "behind the curtain in North Korea" movies in the last decade or so. Even under the circumstances, "Liberation Day" seems like a rather low-key take on something that seems, on the surface, like it should be stranger than fiction.

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