×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

IDFA Film Review: ‘Liberation Day’

The supremely unlikely arrival of Slovenian art-rockers Laibach in North Korea provides ample comic for this wry, thoughtful doc.

With:
Morten Traavik, Milan Fras, Mina Spiler, Ivan Novak, Janez Gabric, Luka Jamnik, Rok Lopatic, Mary Sun Kim, Slavoj Zizek. (English, Korean, Norwegian dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5847760/

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.

IDFA Film Review: 'Liberation Day'

Reviewed at IDFA (Music Documentary), Nov. 19, 2016. Running time: 100 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — Norway-Latvia) A Dogwoof (in U.K.) release of a VFS Films, Traavik.info production in co-production with Norsk Fjernsyn, Mute Records, Staragara. (International sales: Dogwoof, London.) Produced by Uldis Cekulis, Morten Traavik.

Crew: Directed, written by Morten Traavik, Ugis Olte. Camera (color, HD), Sven-Erling Brusletto, Valdis Celmins. Editors, Ugis Olte, Gatis Belogrudovs.

With: Morten Traavik, Milan Fras, Mina Spiler, Ivan Novak, Janez Gabric, Luka Jamnik, Rok Lopatic, Mary Sun Kim, Slavoj Zizek. (English, Korean, Norwegian dialogue)

More Film

  • Box Office: 'Curse of La Llorona'

    Box Office: 'Curse of La Llorona' Wins Worst Easter Weekend in Over a Decade

    Warner Bros. and New Line’s “The Curse of La Llorona” ascended to the top of domestic box office charts, conjuring $26.5 million when it opened in 3,372 North American theaters. “La Llorona” is the latest horror movie to outperform expectations, further cementing the genre as a reliable box office draw. Even so, “La Llorona” and [...]

  • FX's 'Snowfall' Panel TCA Winter Press

    John Singleton Hospitalized After Suffering Stroke

    UPDATED with statements from John Singleton’s family and FX Networks John Singleton, the Oscar nominated director and writer of “Boyz N’ the Hood,” has suffered a stroke. Sources confirm to Variety that Singleton checked himself into the hospital earlier this week after experiencing pain in his leg. The stroke has been characterized by doctors as [...]

  • 'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow

    'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow Easter Weekend at the Box Office

    New Line’s horror pic “The Curse of La Llorona” will summon a solid $25 million debut at the domestic box office, leading a quiet Easter weekend before Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” hits theaters on April 26. The James Wan-produced “La Llorona,” playing in 3,372 theaters, was a hit with hispanic audiences, who accounted for nearly 50% [...]

  • Jim Jarmusch in 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    Film Review: 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    “Carmine Street Guitars” is a one-of-a-kind documentary that exudes a gentle, homespun magic. It’s a no-fuss, 80-minute-long portrait of Rick Kelly, who builds and sells custom guitars out of a modest storefront on Carmine Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, and the film touches on obsessions that have been popping up, like fragrant weeds, in [...]

  • Missing Link Laika Studios

    ‘Missing Link’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Annapurna Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Missing Link.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.91 million through Sunday for [...]

  • Little Woods

    Film Review: 'Little Woods'

    So much of the recent political debate has focused on the United States’ southern border, and on the threat of illegal drugs and criminals filtering up through Mexico. But what of the north, where Americans traffic opiates and prescription pills from Canada across a border that runs nearly three times as long? “Little Woods” opens [...]

  • Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping

    Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping $60 Million (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix has become a destination for television visionaries like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, with deals worth $100 million and $250 million, respectively, and top comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle ($40 million and $60 million, respectively). The streaming giant, which just announced it’s added nearly 10 million subscribers in Q1, is honing in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content