The evidence that current filmmaking is brimming with original, standard-breaking creations has to include the work of Jim Finn, whose brilliant “The Juche Idea” is the latest in a growing filmography without precedent or category. In line with his previous sneaky pastiches of totalitarian thought and action, “Juche” is an outrageously funny study of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il’s theories on moviemaking. Fest auds, political buffs and cine-heads will be dazzled, and vid play may finally boost Finn’s name beyond his current status of well-kept secret.
“Interkosmos” (a mock doc about Soviet space ventures) and “The Shining Trench of President Gonzalo” (a meticulously made “false” document of Shining Path militants in prison) suggested the ways cinema — a long-favored tool of dictatorial regimes — can project truth through illusion. In that light, everything Finn has done points in the direction of the all-too-short “Juche.”
As explained in an early graphic, Juche was an ideology first hatched by North Korea’s first leader, Kim Il-sung, to promote a personality cult, then carried on by his son and successor, Kim Jong-il. Stemming from the country’s increasingly isolated position (before the Soviet collapse, North Korea’s sole allies were China and Albania), the Kims pushed “Juche thought” as a shift from pure Marxist-Leninism, stressing political “independence,” economic “self-support” and military “self-reliance.”
Finn is interested in how this was used to apply to filmmaking, which remains one of Kim Jong-il’s primary interests. Yet while Kim’s textual instructions to filmmakers are the stuff of extreme absolutism, Finn’s film itself is exactly the opposite — rule-breaking, expectation-defying and guaranteed to generate discussion.
Pic’s slight narrative frame is inspired by the true case of North Korea’s kidnapping of late South Korean helmer Shin Sang-ok in 1978, but with a twist. Yoon (Lee Jung Yoon) is a South Korean vid artist, raised by Japanese communist parents, who now — she says — happily works at a Juche farm and artists’ residency. She’s first seen being interviewed by an apparently nice Russian woman (Daniela Kostova) about life on the farm and the evil West.
Yoon’s stabs at updated “Juche art” form the heart of the film. In effect, Finn is imagining how a South Korean woman would modernize Kim’s filmmaking codes, which include such edicts as commanding that “writers must equip themselves effectively with the monolithic ideology of the Party, the great Juche idea.”
Yoon/Finn’s scenes include absurd English-language exchanges (taken directly from official language textbooks) between a Russian visitor (Oleg Mavromatti) and a North Korean man (Kim Sung) billed as “English as a Socialist Language,” along with other bits titled “English as a Capitalist Language,” including a tall-tale bio of Ronald Reagan derived from an old “Voice of America” broadcast.
The Russian woman’s true colors are revealed later, when she harshly critiques Yoon’s vid as politically unacceptable. Yoon, it seems, requires more “development.” Then, Yoon embarks on a freshly reshot vid, with the same elements as her first cut slightly and amusingly readjusted to supposedly toe the line.
Finn also brings in an amazing collection of archive footage, culled from propaganda docs (showing Pyongyang at its most scenic) and North Korean features (including “On the Railway” and “Urban Girl Comes to Get Married”) dating as far back as the late ’50s.
Though Finn didn’t specifically plan it this way, “The Juche Idea” effectively completes a trilogy of ultra-compact features that boldly upturn notions of documentary and fiction, propaganda thought, reality and restaging, and even what an “experimental film” actually is. To say that these films open up new possibilities for satire, ideas and language isn’t an overstatement.