Sat 20 Dec 2014
I, and I imagine many Korean Americans, were offended when first hearing about the movie The Interview. A “buddy movie” that merely takes advantage of the average American’s lack of interest in Korea — by which I mean North and South — didn’t seem like a great idea. Given that we lost over 36,000 soldiers in the Korean War, and that there has never been a the sort of public soul-searching that we’ve had many times in films over the Vietnam War — think of Platoon, Born of the 4th of July, Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning Vietnam, etc. — I always thought we should move the other way: learn more about what created the present conditions, not turn what is a truly awful, desperate situation in the North into caricature.
What was especially offensive, to me, was the poster for the movie in which the Korean written language, Hangul — something all Koreans take immense pride in, a symbol of their resistance to the Japanese attempt at genocide — was merely deployed in an uninspired Shepard Fairey-esque pastiche to signify the “other” with what are, when you read them, not particularly comical texts. Add to this the film’s money shot, its fist-bumping selling point, is when the two hapless, apolitical (read: “relatable”) heroes get their wish and kill of the acting leader of a state. This movie isn’t The Great Dictator, The Mouse that Roared, Dr. Strangelove or Wag the Dog but a pretty dopey attempt to take advantage of the fact that all anyone knows about North Korea’s dictator concerns his haircut and that he is overweight.
Of course, none of us have seen the film, but from the likes of it, it seems to fit more into the Fu Manchu / Charlie Chan tradition of depicting quirky, inscrutable, all-powerful (if wily) Asians with funny accents — our version of the African American tradition of minstrelsy in white American cinema that Spike Lee (and before him Marlon Riggs) did so much to critique. From what I’ve seen in the trailers, Randall Park’s depiction of Kim Jong Un is quite charming, and I probably would have enjoyed the film on many levels. But I do wonder about the turn of events after the Sony hack.
First off, why are no Korean or Asian Americans being asked their opinions on these occurrences? After all, we have huge Koreatowns — in which Hangul is ubiquitous — in many major cities. We have immigrants (and sons of immigrants, like myself) who have been paying attention — with our hearts in our throats — to events on the peninsula for our entire adult lives. Why are the only people who seem to be cited as somehow offended by this (Obama an obvious exception, though he’s fallen quickly in line) white men of privilege? George Clooney, Judd Apatow, Sean Penn, Steve Carrell, Bill Maher — all seem to be speaking up about how “un-American” it is this act of “expression” is being “censored.”
As far as I can tell living in Hollywood (or just reading the news), self-censorship is par for the course — no one in the major studios wants to make a movie that won’t make lots of money, and very good ideas are always being sidelined for the bottom line. So this hack will install a new regime of “self-censorship”?
Hollywood bends over backwards not to make movies that insult African Americans, Christians, Jews, gun-owners, straight people (when they make “gay” films), gay people (when they make “bromance” films), etc. — as well as Asian Americans (and the Chinese, if there’s a market). I’m not complaining, it’s great folks are sensitive if only for filthy lucre, though I miss the days when visionaries like Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce were censored because they were offering new principles to society, not merely taking advantage of someone else’s hard fought battles. Even Chris Rock has recently lamented (“Chris Rock Talks to Frank Rich About Ferguson, Cosby, and What ‘Racial Progress’ Really Means,” Vulture, November 30, 2014) that comedians can’t be as challenging as they once were due to social media.
The real story here, finally, is not about censorship — no one’s seen the film, so we don’t know if it’s Birth of a Nation (unlikely) or Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (in which GWB is allowed to be a quirky, goofy, approachable guy but is not, indeed, killed at the end). The chest-beating by these macho “creatives” about freedom of expression — that it is “un-American” to “censor” works of “art” — misses the point that these types of attacks will happen between several types of countries with very different relationships to the notion of “freedom of expression.”
There are two major historical parallels here. The first is the outbreak of Islamic riots — a version of “censorship” from abroad, but through action on the street — following the publication in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2006 of degrading images of Mohammed, which was just a dumb idea and could have easily been avoided. The long-gestating, expensive ad campaign for The Interview (not the movie itself — no one’s seen it!), was coyly playing with such incitements, especially with the use of Hangul.
The second concerns cyber-warfare, namely that the United States’ insertion of the Stuxnet virus into a Iranian nuclear plant in 2010 to literally destroy their reactors (see “Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran” in the New York Times, June 1, 2012) set a precedent for non-retaliation that the North Koreans (or whoever) must have misread. There was no retaliation by Iran for the latter act nor international condemnation (James Franco certainly didn’t voice an opinion), even as NATO determined that the Stuxnet virus — which was developed over three years under close White House supervision, and which escaped to infect computers worldwide — was considered an “act of force.” (“U.S.-Israeli cyberattack on Iran was ‘act of force,’ NATO study found,” Washington Times, March 24, 2013).
This attack on Sony sets a new precedent, but it’s not the one of a foreign state “censoring” America — otherwise, not caring about repercussions, we’d have legions of films in which two lovable goofballs knock off acting world leaders of a variety of races and creeds. Rather, it is that an act of cyber-terrorism attributed to a nation-state might find its way into something like a “real” war, one folks on both the left and right (“North Korea brokers peace between Republicans and Democrats,” MarketWatch, Dec 19, 2014) are beginning to see as a “just” war.
I’m not convinced North Korea is behind the attacks. As the media seems to have forgotten, the first emails to Sony from the hackers asked for money, and the hackers stole something like six films. It was only after the media speculated — due to the standard sabre-rattling response of the North Koreans to the imminent release of the film months earlier— that the “Guardians of Peace” decided to use that as the main motif of their complaints (see “The Evidence That North Korea Hacked Sony Is Flimsy,” Wired, December 17, 2014). The image at the head of this post does not look like the work of North Korea but a bunch of bored teenagers passing the bong (“Today’s Tom Soyah…”) in a basement in Lyndhurst, New Jersey.
The chest beating about “trampling on our first amendment rights” (as if any other country signed on to that), the demonization of a foreign leader (not hard to do in this case, but still), and the history of American intervention in Asia (the first armed merchant ship from the U.S. landed in Korea in 1871 and was promptly destroyed) with no clear dissenting voice in the media is alarming. Add to that the singular lack of knowledge most Americans have concerning the Korean War (1950-53) along with the money, talent, influence and occasional good looks of the macho men pulling for retribution in Hollywood — where McCarthyism claimed its greatest victims — to the point of transforming a “resurgent” President Obama into a mere parrot of their views (isn’t it cool he spanked Sony?), both nauseates and frightens me.
Brian Kim Stefans
Associate Professor of English
Poetry and New Media
University of California, Los Angeles