A pizza shovel for the Dear Leader: was he amused by “Kim Jong-il’s Comedy Club”?

by Philip Gowman on 9 February, 2010 updated 24 March, 2010

in Documentaries | DPRK | Film reviews and comment | Humour

Kim Jong-il’s Comedy Club is a Danish documentary which follows the two-week visit to North Korea by a Danish comedy double-act who had received permission to perform in Pyongyang’s National Theatre. The documentary is fascinating on many levels. First, the two comedians are ethnic Korean adoptees, born in South Korea but brought up in Denmark, and speaking not a word of Korean. Second, one of the comedians, Jacob, is handicapped – something that is a rare sight on the streets of Pyongyang. Confronting political correctness head-on, the accompanying journalist, Mads, says: “he calls himself a spastic”. Indeed, at the end of the film, when we are not sure at what level of irony the documentary is operating, Jacob tells his minder “I’m the happiest spastic in the world”.

This is the Koreans’ first return to the peninsula since they were adopted, and so it is a significant journey for them, as well as being significant for their hosts that they chose to make this visit north rather than south of the DMZ.

There are some hilarious moments. The Danes bring a gift for the Dear Leader, and present it with great ceremony at the Ministry of Culture. It’s a nicely varnished pizza shovel, reflecting Kim Jong-il’s reported partiality for that particular fast food. And the moment of homage in front of Kim Il-sung’s statue is also killingly funny: two lines of doggerel are read from a poetry book in tribute. Of course, permission has to be sought from the minder, who has some frantic consultation with her advisors.

The job of the North Korean minders can’t have been easy. Of course, they are presented as “controlling”, and half the fun of the film is to see how much the Danes are able to get away with. But the minders are also hospitable and welcoming – showing their guests the usual tourist spots, and trying to teach the visitors a bit of Korean.

There are two particularly sensitive parts of the film.

First, the comedians’ North Korean minders, one of whom is a film director, decide that the comedy routine won’t work, and take it upon themselves to re-write it. It was difficult to tell from the brief segment of the original routine we saw whether it was likely to win over a North Korean audience, but the local advisors clearly thought that changes were needed. Was this political interference, or was it a generous desire on the part of their hosts not to have their honoured guests die on stage? Some comedy is a universal language while other comedy simply does not travel well. From the available footage, we could not judge which was the case with the Danish double-act, though the slapstick final version with a political message at the end seemed to go down well with the locals.

The other sensitive moment was a huge anti-American peace demonstration which the visitors were taken to. Clearly, the twisted propaganda is unpalatable to the visitors and us the viewers, but the guests are expected to enter into the spirit of things or their minders will be in serious trouble. Mads, the tall journalist, complies with some dutiful anti-American clenched-fist salutes, while Jacob refuses. Here his disability saves him. Because of his speech impediment no-one other than Mads can understand what he is saying – something which worked to the film’s advantage on a number of occasions – so Mads has to say that he was so overwhelmed with the scale of the demonstration that he was unable to move. On national TV that night, the forlorn sight of Jacob being pushed in his wheelchair in front of the marching phalanxes of North Korean soldiers looked like something out of Woody Allen’s Zelig.

There are many moments to bring enjoyment or despair in this all-too-short film, and you should catch it on iPlayer while you can. Mads, throughout the documentary, is consulting Kim Jong-il’s own On the Art of Cinema for on-the-spot guidance. If the Dear Leader had himself been directing, there would have been slightly different results.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

bramble07 February 10, 2010 at 2:08 am

this article paints all too jovial and jolly a picture of this documentary. Beyond the surface deep comedy and humour observed from Jacob’s disguised laughter, lay a sinister message. At the documentary’s heart was the message that North Korea is a fundamentally evil nation, and the viewer was left with the harrowing realisation, as Jacob realised standing in front of an audience full of children, that North Korean’s are imprisoned. Not only on a physical level, it was made apparent that the citizens are effectively penned into the country, but they are mentally restrained, and the trauma experienced under Kim Jong Il was written on the expressionless faces of the masses in this film. Much more than an “at times hilarious documentary”, this piece of film making showcases the horror of a nation without freedom.

Philip Gowman February 10, 2010 at 7:52 am

Thanks for the different perspective. I take it as read that Kim’s is a hideous regime and so my brief review above didn’t highlight those aspects. You’re right to do so, and the documentary brought them out. One of the most chilling quotes I noted from the documentary was “The essence of North Korea: they’re clapping because they’re scared. They keep on clapping for as long as the camera is rolling.” Scary.

Frazer Walker December 7, 2010 at 2:33 pm

I want to purchase a copy of this terrific programme but have been told that I will have to contact the programme maker rather than the BBC. Can anyone help by giving contact details?

Frazer Walker

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