Film Review: Liberation Day

“Documentary musical” about the first Western rock band to play a concert in North Korea—with selections from 'The Sound of Music!'—is as oddball as it sounds.
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The film’s event took place two years ago, but Liberation Day has a timely quality given the recently ramped-up possibility of a war with North Korea. The title comes from the annual celebration of the Korean peninsula’s separation from Japanese rule, and in 2015, on the 70th anniversary, “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong Un invited controversial Slovenian band Laibach to play for the masses. Co-directors Morten Traavik and Uġis Olte detail the daily progress of the concert preparations in meticulous fashion while their movie emerges as more a real-life surrealist joke than anything with a clear message. Viewers troubled about today’s headlines regarding nuclear holocaust will not feel any less frightened after seeing this insider reportage.

Liberation Day begins with archival footage mixed with newly shot interviews (Slavoj Žižek among the deep thinkers) as a way to establish the backdrop for the big concert that is at the heart of the film. Though this early section is a bit haphazard, perhaps on purpose, we get the sense the many culture clashes and layers of irony should best be understood as beyond simplistic explanation. Leaving the “craziness” of Kim Jong Un aside, the sheer volume of cacophonous sounds and enthralling images creates a madness of its own—an echo of the ideas expressed in Susan Sontag’s 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism.”

The subsequent portions of the film comprise a day-by-day account of all the work and diplomacy that went into the planning for and staging of the spectacle, focusing mainly on the censorship issues concerning the band’s song lyrics. The pace of these scenes is considerably slower and more measured, but no less nutty in its presentation. The final section is the concert itself, seen and heard in an anti-climactic short-form version.

Traavik and Olte were given a surprising amount of access in covering all aspects of this production. Then again, the sheer egoism of the people involved may have made that very access possible despite how silly the subjects come across—from the Korean officials to the band members to the filmmakers themselves. In the case of Laibach, what has never been precisely determined by either fans or critics is whether the ex-Yugoslavian rock group is meant to be a parody of crypto-fascism or a prime example of the real thing. Either way, the musicians’ show provides an appropriately cartoonish counterpoint to the regimented, totalitarian stylings of the North Korean cultural aesthetic. The indistinct, ambiguous meaning even mirrors the edgy uncertainty behind the nuclear threats—nowadays from both North Korea and the U.S.

As it veers from funny to chilling and back, Liberation Day also veers from absorbing to boring and back. The day-by-day section depicting all the arrangements for the concert could have used some trimming in the editor’s suite. Otherwise, the filmmakers do a diligent, admirable job. What is truly lacking is the kind of self-reflexive, avant-garde complexity that better informed the documentary The Juche Idea from director Jim Finn, a 2008 release about a South Korean video artist kidnapped to create “artistic” propaganda for the North.

Thus, Liberation Day is closer in tone and style to the ultimately inconsequential Dennis Rodman: Big Bang in Pyongyang (2015), about the freakish former basketball player’s “diplomatic visit” to North Korea. But if you like weirdness for weirdness’s sake, you will appreciate all these colorful, unlikely efforts to exhibit East meeting West.

Click here for cast and crew information.