So comprehensively soundproofed from the western world is the totalitarian dictatorship of North Korea that it’s hard to think of any musicians suitable for the honor of playing the country’s first ever international rock concert. Still, you’d have to travel awfully far down the list before landing on Laibach, the high-kitsch Slovenian art-metal veterans best known for their doomy neo-classical covers of such pop cheese nuggets as “Live is Life” and “The Final Countdown.” Yet in August 2015, they went where no band had gone before — and this bizarre, one-off culture clash is chronicled with droll, highly entertaining bemusement in “Liberation Day.” Billed as a “documentary musical,” this potential crowd-pleaser gets considerable comic mileage out of the friction between two very different brands of cultural eccentricity — but it succeeds as more than a diverting novelty, packed as it is with pointed observations on diplomacy and censorship in a country that’s still a mystery to many.
Given its accessible blend of politics and pop curiosity, as well as its built-in event possibilities — the film’s IDFA premiere was followed by a live Laibach mini-gig, introduced by celebrity philosopher Slavoj Zizek — “Liberation Day” should march easily into further festival berths, as well as healthy multi-platform distribution. (Sales agent Dogwoof has already bagged U.K. rights.) Any superfans of the Slovenian pomp-rockers may, however, be surprised to find that they’re a compliantly passive presence in the film; instead, it’s Morten Traavik, their show’s intensely driven director (and co-helmer of the film itself), who emerges as the unlikely star of proceedings.
A nattily mustachioed artist and concert impresario who engineered the band’s improbable visit to Pyongyang to begin with, Traavik cuts an odd, affecting figure as he repeatedly attempts to reconcile Laibach’s cultivatedly offbeat image with the suffocating bureaucratic demands of Kim Jong-un’s administration — particularly sensitive in this case, given that the concert was held to mark the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule. (Footage from last year’s “Last Week Tonight,” in which John Oliver raucously mocked the occasion, sets much of the scene.) Quite how Traavik ever convinced the powers that be that Laibach were the right fit for this occasion is never quite explained in the film; also notably unaddressed are the moral rights or wrongs of pursuing the gig in the first place. Even with such blind spots, however, his blend of earnest determination and sidelong humor is persuasive; the longer rehearsals progress, hobbled by one complaint after another from their unbending hosts, the more the concert appears to be a surreal dream that he alone has willed into waking life.
Against all odds, however, Laibach’s presence in this oppressively controlled state comes to seem symbolically apt — albeit for reasons the North Koreans may not acknowledge. The band’s career-long fixation with fascistic and military iconography, which has fueled debates within their fanbase over ironic protest versus complicity, certainly cuts both ways in this context — a parallel underlined by a furiously paced introductory montage intercutting historical Korean archive material with the band’s video imagery, set to their deathly-inspirational take on Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music.” (“Do-Re-Mi” also gets a memorable airing.) It’s a juxtaposition that could be viewed as tacitly critical of the country’s regime, though Traavik’s Korean enablers reserve their fight for lower-stakes battles. Cutting nude statues out of one performance video backdrop, for example, seems the least significant of the issues at hand here, so naturally it becomes a major sticking point.
Notwithstanding its fractious political undertow, “Liberation Day” finally sits squarely in the let’s-put-on-a-show subgenre of documentary, and the show that Traavik and his crew put on turns out to be rather rousing — despite, or rather because of, the compromises that have gone into its production. The seated audience’s reaction to Laibach’s climactic rendition of their march-inspired 2014 single “The Whistleblowers” is edited in a gradual, tentative arc from positively fearful bewildermant on some faces to guarded appreciation on others. “There are all kinds of music,” one viewer politely states afterwards. “Now we know there’s this kind of music too.” It reads like a supremely dry burn, but coming toward the end of this funny, thoughtful, knowingly absurd study of contrasting aberrations, it sounds a little more like an oh-so-gentle shift in awareness.