Rocketman: the rise and fall and rise again of a beloved British rock / pop icon, with no reference to social and music trends

Dexter Fletcher, “Rocketman” (2019)

Rather than playing as a straight biopic – a template that felled “Bohemian Rhapsody” – this comedy drama portraying the life and career of British rock / pop-star Elton John from his childhood in the 1950s as a piano prodigy to the 1980s when he crashes into rehabilitation to seek treatment for various addictions opts for a surreal musical fantasy approach in which various of Elton John’s best-known songs illustrate the artist’s trajectory from shy young boy Reginald Dwight whose parents hate each other, quarrel and neglect Reggie’s emotional needs, to aspiring rocker teaming with lyricist Bernie Taupin to write songs, to glam rock performer whose personal life eventually spirals out of control with abusive relationships (including one with his manager John Reid), cocaine and other drug addictions, and bulimia. The result is an energetic, flamboyant and highly entertaining, if not exactly informative, account of Elton John’s rise and fall and rise again as a star and human being who gains some sort of redemption and finds some peace in accepting himself as he is, warts and all.

For all its zing and colour and outrageousness, the narrative turns out to be conventional and its message is nothing out of the ordinary: it’s the story of an ordinary boy with a musical gift who wants nothing more than to be loved and accepted, and who tries to find that special love and to be accepted, at the same time taking career risks that open doors and propel him onto a path of fame and fortune. His journey steers him into episodes of doubt, self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour: at one point in the film, he attempts suicide in spectacular manner by throwing himself into a swimming pool in the middle of a party. True to form, at the bottom of the pool he finds his childhood self tinkling on a toy piano singing one of his famous songs. Welsh singer / actor Taron Egerton does a sterling job playing Elton John in a fairly demanding role that requires him to be as much comic as dramatic actor wearing a full range of outlandish stage clothes and glasses along with a terrible haircut, and enduring psychological abuse from both his parents (played by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) and his lover / manager (Richard Madden).

It is to Fletcher’s credit as a director that the movie moves swiftly and easily through familiar musical numbers that take leaps and jumps through the decades, focusing on just a few significant events in John’s life. Strangely the film does not detail John’s obsession with his receding hairline and battle against baldness; neither does it note any friendships or rivalries he might have had with other British rock and pop stars. Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is not much more than walking and talking wallpaper. The film’s sets – the settings include John’s mansion in Los Angeles as well as the middle class Fifties home where he grows up along with the many venues he performs in – merit special attention as do the many costumes the performer donned over the years.

Apart from detailing how a beloved British music icon managed to navigate the perils of fame, wealth and celebrity to accept and learn to forgive himself, and to let go of the abusive people in his life, the film actually tells viewers very little about how Elton John came to be such a megastar and how he managed to stay on top for so long. Too much of his life is crammed into a couple of hours and the film tends to dwell a lot on his costumes and theatricality without suggesting why such flamboyance was a necessary part of his act. Significantly the film has very little to say about the social and musical trends of the decades in which Elton John’s career developed and catapulted him to worldwide fame and great material fortune.

The Untold Story – “Korean Empire”: a testament to Korean determination in reclaiming lost history

Park Jeong-woo and Park Hee-joo, “The Untold Story – ‘Korean Empire’ ” (Arirang TV, 2013)

A symbol of the Korean people’s desire for freedom and independence and their first contacts with the West of their own initiative in the late 19th century, the Korea Legation Building at Logan Circle in Washington DC was for a long time lost to Koreans as their embassy in the United States from 1910 to 2012. Built in 1877, the building was purchased by the Joseon kingdom then ruling Korea in 1891 to be used as its embassy in dealing with the United States. At the time, King Gojong had ambitions and plans for modernising Korea along Western lines, against the objections of his Qing Chinese overlords. Unfortunately, geopolitical events beyond the Joseon kingdom / later Korean empire’s control led to the building passing under Japanese control in 1905, after that nation defeated China and then Russia in two wars. Japan later sold the building in 1910 for $10, having bought it from Korea for $5: an insulting gesture to the Koreans if ever there was one. Through the efforts of the Korean-American community in raising the money to purchase the building and keeping the issue alive among their own members, the Legation Building was finally relocated with the help of the US National Archives and bought back by the Koreans in 2012, with the intention of using it as a cultural and educational centre.

Using archived photographs and animation (often in combination) and interviews with Korean-American academics and Korean diplomats, the documentary is a handsome and highly visual presentation of a little known period in Korea’s history when the Joseon kingdom declared itself independent of China in 1897, with King Gojong as its first emperor, and attempted to conduct its own diplomacy with the West free from interference from China, Japan and Russia. However – and the film does not make this very clear – the Koreans may have put too much faith in the United States as a trustworthy ally: while the documentary acknowledges that President Theodore Roosevelt in the first decade of the 20th century saw Japan as much more important and modern than Korea, it is silent on American ambitions to be a dominant power in the affairs of East Asia and how the US co-operated with Japan, looking away when that nation occupied Korea and made it a colony. The film also treats much subsequent Korean history from the early 1900s on in a superficial way. Nothing is said of what happened to King Gojong and his son Prince Sunjong after their empire is gobbled up by Japan, and some viewers may find this omission a major fault of the documentary.

By making a film about the Korea Legation Building and its complicated history, Arirang TV pays tribute to the people who tirelessly sought to locate it and try to buy it back. The film’s narrative demonstrates the determination of the Korean people to remember and reclaim a vital part of their history as an independent nation navigating its way through a treacherous and dark period in its life.

Borderless: European refugee / migrant crisis harbours a sinister agenda

Caolan Robertson and George Llewellyn-John, “Borderless” (2019)

Lauren Southern is a political activist and independent journalist notorious for expressing views considered to be white-nationalist and borderline racist / xenophobic. However this documentary on the European refugee and immigration crisis is free of ideology and criticism, and Southern (together with her 2-person camera crew) interviews as many people involved in the crisis as possible to get an understanding of the scale of the crisis: these people include refugees and migrants in camps in Morocco, and in Lesvos and other parts of Greece; a homeless migrant from Mali in Paris; EU citizens including a Greek farmer whose farm was overrun by people traffickers and smugglers; people working for NGOs (non-government organisations) in refugee camps supposedly assisting refugees; vigilante militia members in Bulgaria on the lookout for illegal migrants; and an Irish investigative journalist who speaks frankly about the profits that smuggling networks can earn from illegal migration for the people who control them. Southern’s work takes her and her crew across southern Europe and northwest Africa, and to Ireland and Paris.

Initially the film is slow and appears quite amateurish as Southern waits late at night for refugees and migrants to arrive at a beach in northwestern Turkey where people smugglers will take them on a possibly hazardous voyage in flimsy dinghy boats to Lesvos island. After that episode, when the film cuts to Morocco, the pace picks up and the film has more focus and direction, though the unnecessarily dramatic music is intrusive and jarring. From this point on, viewers begin to get a sense of what Southern is working towards: that the refugee and migration crisis, in which huge numbers of people are forced to move from war-torn and/or impoverished areas in the Middle East, western Asia and sub-Saharan Africa into a Europe struggling with its own problems of austerity economics, high unemployment, excessive property speculation and homelessness, appears to be part of a sinister plan created and engineered by an unseen cabal of people who actually profit financially and otherwise (such as perhaps stealing vacated land sitting atop natural gas and oil deposits) by huge shifts of populations, with no regard for how different groups of people with very different histories, cultures, values and traditions can live and work together in crowded conditions and with limited resources.

Alarming moments abound through the documentary: in northern Greece, migrants from as far away as Afghanistan tell of daily fights and violence in their camp and one man says that ISIS fighters have infiltrated the camp by pretending to be refugees and are on the lookout for him (he is an atheist) and others like Christians or Kurdish people who refuse to submit to their Wahhabi brand of Islam; members of NGOs funded by the UN or the EU admit teaching migrants how to fudge their personal details and commit fraud in order to enter Europe, and how they themselves benefit financially from aiding and abetting the human trafficking; African refugees and migrants in Morocco pour out their hopes and dreams of work and success in the European countries they strive to enter; and several migrants in camps in Greece and Morocco admit that they wished they had stayed home. Where migrants find the thousands of euros or their equivalent to pay smugglers to take them abroad is never mentioned but from the way some migrants speak and the way they try to dress and comport themselves, one suspects they may have come from middle class backgrounds or pulled some strings. One odd thing about the migrants that might strike viewers is how very few women, children and elderly people there are in the camps; another odd thing is that some migrants have come from as far away as Afghanistan.

In Brussels, MEPs Southern interviews admit that the EU wastes huge amounts of money in driving an agenda that forces open border policies on EU member nations with no thought for how individual countries cope with housing migrants, feeding them and giving them work at the same time that many of their own citizens are homeless, suffer food insecurity and cannot find work in conditions already strained by austerity policies that have shrunk economic and business activity. Southern travels to Wicklow, a rural town in Ireland, which is trying to cope with an influx of asylum seekers holed up in a hotel. The Wicklow locals lament the irreversible changes forced on them by a local government council that refuses to listen to them, and the asylum seekers themselves see the homelessness, the lack of work, the despair and the suspicion surrounding them.

While the film’s conclusion is an untidy mix of images from previous parts of the documentary accompanied by the tiresome muzak soundtrack, Southern’s address to the audience, in which she admits her astonishment at the scale and complexiy of the crisis and the greed, manipulation and criminality involved in what is virtually a giant global human-trafficking operation, on par with (and superseding) the trans-Atlantic slave trade from Ireland and Africa during the 17th to 19th centuries, and her realisation that refugees, migrants and the peoples of the host nations alike have been deceived and played for fools by a small group of what she calls “evil men” (in reality, governments and their puppet masters), is remarkable in its stark honesty. Southern herself has come a long way in her own research and discoveries, and while she may still express views considered antithetical to the bland and shallow values under the Identity Politics / Diversity umbrella, at least these views are informed by reality on the ground.

Chan is Missing: a missing-person mystery dives into exploring a community and the immigrant experience

Wayne Wang, “Chan is Missing” (1982)

Would-be taxicab owner / driver Jo (Wood Moy) needs to purchase a licence enabling him to drive a taxi so he contacts a friend, Chan Hong, to pass on $4,000 to take to the relevant licensing authority. However Chan and the money disappear so together with his nephew Steve (Marc Hayashi), Jo travels around the Chinese community in San Francisco looking for and inquiring about Chan. What most viewers might imagine should be fairly straightforward turns into a veritable odyssey for Jo and Steve as each person they speak to about Chan has a very different opinion about the elusive man as to his personality and motivations, and a very complex and contradictory portrait of Chan develops. During the two men’s search for Chan, viewers learn a great deal about the nature of the Chinese-American community and the political tensions within it, the dilemma of the immigrant experience in a strange land, and the stereotypes and filters through which most Americans view Chinese-American people and their culture. As one character reminds Jo, Chinese people have lived in the United States since the mid-19th century yet however much they try to integrate into American society and be accepted, if most Americans do not accept them, then that is because America does not want to accept them.

Shot in black-and-white, this cheap and cheerful film partakes quite liberally from the classic film noir genre – in particular, the uncle-and-nephew sleuthing tag-team and Jo’s voice-over narration recall the Charlie Chan films of the 1930s – 50s in which the Chinese-Hawaiian detective occasionally ropes in his eldest son to help solve crimes. Jo and Steve visit a fair few eccentric characters in their quest, including a restaurant cook wearing a “Samurai Night Fever” T-shirt who is tired of cooking sweet-and-sour pork several times a day every day; Chan’s wife and wise-cracking daughter; Chan’s migration sponsor; people at a Filipino seniors’ community centre; an unseen Chinese immigrant apartment dweller who can’t stand other Chinese people; and George the English-language teacher who discusses local Chinese-American politics with Jo. A sub-plot revolving around whether Chan was involved in a flag-waving dispute over whether the Taiwanese flag or the flag of the People’s Republic of China should be used during a Chinese New Year parade, and which resulted in a fight and a man’s death develops and adds comic frisson to the film: later in the film, Jo discovers a gun and is frightened that Chan may have killed the man. At critical points in the film when a character talks about Chan to Jo, loud music blares out which blurs the conversation and adds to the mystery of Chan and his motivations.

The search for an elusive character who may not actually exist leads into an exploration of the diversity, individuality and eccentricity of a community that has long been viewed through filters and stereotypes encouraged by the news media and Hollywood culture. Jo and Steve’s quest ultimately becomes a quest for identity and connection with the culture and country of their ancestors, a country neither of them may have visited. A number of film noir elements are brought in for comic effect in the film’s second half: long shadows in Chan Hong’s hotel room (enhanced by the monochromatic film); suspenseful, almost shrill and hysterical music; shots of Chinatown itself from behind the wheel of a car; and even a gangster moll in the form of Chan Hong’s girlfriend. The sequence in which Jo fears he is being followed by another car is an affectionate send-up of the Charlie Chan films which partly inspired this film.

Wood Moy as the ageing world-weary taxicab driver carries the whole film capably on his shoulders but Hayashi is just as effective as his impatient nephew and the cast generally acquit themselves well in a film where it looks as if improvisation in the story-line is the major feature and the narrative meanders at will depending on whom director Wayne Wang was able to rope into participating in the film.

It seems that absence does make the heart fonder, for a transplanted Chinese culture that is slowly disappearing as its generations age and pass on.

Investigating trauma and how a society deals with uncomfortable truths in “America in denial: Gabor Maté on the psychology of Russiagate”

Anthony DiMieri, “America in denial: Gabor Maté on the psychology of Russiagate” (The Grayzone Project, May 2019)

For two years from the time Donald Trump won the US Presidency, the United States has been gripped in a collective hysteria over his campaign’s supposed collusion with the Russian government to capture the nation’s leadership from his rival Hillary Clinton. It was only in April 2019 that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, after conducting an investigation from May 2017 onwards, finally submitted his report to US Attorney General William Barr (and published it in redacted form in April) in which he concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge the Trump campaign with collusion or coordination with the Kremlin. The curious thing about Russiagate is not that this hysteria and obsession with Russian wrongdoing or interference in US politics existed at all but that it lasted as long as it did across the political spectrum, to the extent that nearly the entire nation believed in a rumour that, when exposed to light, had no legs; and moreover, when the rumour was exposed, so many people erupted in anger and disbelief and refused to believe that they had been deceived. Despite Russia’s protestations that it had never interfered in the 2016 US presidential elections, the lie continues; if anything, it has become a permanent part of the nation’s cultural belief set that Russia is continuing to undermine American politics, even when evidence can be found that other nations are trying to influence US politics and policy.

To this end, Grayzone journalist Aaron Maté sat down with his father Gabor Maté, a physician and expert on mental health and the effect that childhood traumas can have on future adult life, to discuss the Russiagate phenomenon and how the election of Donald Trump as US President was received by thousands if not millions of Americans as a traumatic and emotionally scarring event. The half-hour conversation between the two ranges across various cultural and social psychological phenomena that have shaped American thinking over decades, perhaps even the past two centuries, that have come together not only to predispose Americans into believing that a foreign enemy they have long been taught to fear is attacking them using underhanded methods but to invest considerable effort into maintaining that belief even when it has been shot down. Psychological projection of one’s own sins onto another, scapegoating, the cult of victimhood and that peculiarly American custom of reducing and personalising complex politics and history into one person and making that person the epitome of Evil, with the result that US foreign policy ends up focusing on taking that person out, leaving chaos behind once that person is gone and having either a vague plan or no plan at all for reconstruction and rebuilding a defeated rival country: these are topics discussed in a fairly cursory manner, with no examination of how such American characteristics might have arisen in the past, and what contexts and institutions helped to birth those characteristics.

Gabor Maté comes close to choosing Hollywood as a major source of the various narratives that encourage Americans to adopt quite infantile views of how the world operates, focusing on individuals with particular psychologies and powers rather than on the long-term sociological processes that shape individuals’ mentalities and careers and which push them in certain directions. In such narratives, people and nations are either Good or Evil, America is always on the side of Good and those who oppose America are always Evil, and Good always vanquishes Evil. For many Americans, Donald Trump is clearly Evil and so it is natural that he and that other personification of Evil, the Russian President Vladimir Putin, should have put their heads together and plotted to make Trump President. (Of course there are also many Americans who regard Trump as Good.) It is a pity that father and son Maté do not trace this thinking back to the days of the Pilgrims and other early settlers who compared themselves to God’s Chosen People sent to America to tame it (and exterminate the indigenous people who owned the land) and claim it for their own. The journalist and his physician Dad unfortunately do not examine the role of Hollywood, mainstream news media and education in constantly repeating the idea of America as God’s Chosen and Exceptional Nation, to whom all other nations bow down and regard as their spiritual and moral better.

The interview also ranges across the reality of America meddling in other nations’ affairs to the extent of choosing those nations’ leaders, forcing them to sack leaders America does not like or even carrying out regime-change activities that include violence, invasion and warfare. Robert Mueller, appointed to investigate Democrat claims of Trump’s collusion with Russia, comes in for examination as a saviour supposed to deliver America from the clutches of Evil by finding incriminating evidence that will suffice for an impeachment of Trump. People clearly had unrealistic expectations of what Mueller was supposed to achieve and the actual result would have been traumatic for them.

I would like to be able to say that the conversation between the two men was bright and scintillating but while some of the issues they brought up were interesting and thought-provoking, their actual conversation droned quite considerably and keeping up with their monotone without feeling drowsy was hard. Fortunately a transcript of the interview is available at The Grayzone Project website.

At the end Gabor Maté says that being disillusioned and facing the truth is much better than continuing to believe in illusions and risk being traumatised when the illusions do not work out the way they are expected to; but beyond seeing the truth, he does not say how people should come to terms with the truth and the trauma it causes, and how they should act on the truth and become more open-minded and less inclined to follow fantasy illusions promoted by Hollywood, governments, academia and the news media.

The Great Pretender: a shallow picture of a famous rock music icon

Rhys Thomas, “The Great Pretender” (2012)

The public fascination with the shy Parsi Indian boy born in a British colonial backwater in Zanzibar in 1946, who later became a golden-voiced rock star legend much beloved throughout the world before AIDS took him in 1991, knows no bounds; a feature film dramatisation of his life, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been raking in the hundreds of millions in revenue throughout the world and there is no shortage of documentaries on the life of Queen singer Freddie Mercury. Probably the best known of these is “The Great Pretender”, made by Queen fan Rhys Thomas, which focuses on Mercury’s life from 1976 onwards to 1991 and a little beyond. In particular there is a heavy emphasis on Mercury’s solo work that produced the album “Mr Bad Guy” and his collaboration with the Catalan / Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe.

The narrative is driven by interviews of people who associated with Mercury from 1976 onwards and archival footage of Mercury himself and his later lover Jim Hutton (who died in 2010); what they say about Mercury is that, far from his flamboyant and confident public persona, he was shy, even self-tortured at times, restless and eager for new experiences and ways of doing things, and maybe not a little shallow at times. During the late 1970s / early 80s, Mercury comes across as arrogant, self-absorbed and selfish; towards the end of his life he has grown tired of his hedonistic lifestyle and matured quite considerably. He is no longer interested in competing with other, younger rock / pop singers in showiness and wants to compose more serious and complex music. At this point, he is advised by his doctors that he has AIDS and the disease is progressing rapidly to the point where he has very little time left in the world to do the things he wants to do.

For all its emphasis on Mercury’s solo work, the film shows no songs or pieces of music from “Mr Bad Guy” or “Barcelona” in their entirety and viewers have to accept the film’s opinion that “Mr Bad Guy” failed (in terms of album sales) because Queen fans refused to accept the idea of Mercury performing without Queen. (I have heard the album myself and can say that the relatively simple nature of the songs and the choice of instrumentation were abysmal for someone who years before wrote complex songs like “Liar” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”) Viewers are left with a fairly shallow picture of a man who lived a double life as the flamboyant Freddie Mercury in public and the shy, modest and retiring Farrokh Bulsara in private. How he could have managed all that while composing, recording and performing (with three other people) a considerable body of songs over 15 albums is a question most people want to know: this documentary comes nowhere close to giving a satisfactory answer.

Peterloo: an immersive dramatic re-enactment of a significant event in British political history

Mike Leigh, “Peterloo” (2018)

Made just before the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in August 1819, when British cavalry troops and foot soldiers charged a peaceful demonstration of some 60,000 to 100,000 workers and their families protesting at high food prices and unemployment that were leading to hunger and suffering, and at their lack of political representation in Parliament, this film is a fictional re-enactment of the historical political and social background and the events leading to the mass protest at St Peter’s Field. The detail that director Mike Leigh invests in recreating the hierarchical British society of the time, the huge social inequalities that existed and the attitudes expressed by people of different social layers, from the monarchy and aristocracy down through the technocracy, the labouring classes to the very poor is incredible. The film takes care to create and build up carefully a credible society, using different points of view of various characters, and the result is highly immersive and filled with a distinct flavour of early 19th-century life in Britain.

The film is structured around the experiences of a young soldier, Joseph (David Moorst), who stumbles home from the Battle of Waterloo (in 1815) suffering from PTSD and falls into the care of his close-knit labouring family in Manchester. He tries in vain to find work but the economic conditions are hard and none is available. People complain about the high prices of corn due to the Corn Laws which among other things forbid the import of cheap foreign corn. Meanwhile, Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson) is concerned about worker unrest in the northern counties of Lancashire, Yorkshire and areas around Liverpool and Manchester. Government spies, infiltrators and provocateurs are put to work and intercept mail sent between radical reformist preachers and their flocks. Two Manchester reformists, Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell) and Dr Joseph Healey (Ian Mercer), go to London to hear reformist leader Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) speak; they try to invite him for a friendly drink but he rudely spurns them.

Much of the film then follows the reformists’ plan to hold a mass demonstration in Manchester at which Hunt will speak. Hunt insists on having no weapons at the protest despite Bamford’s warning that armed yeomanry will be present. Organisers of the protest include the staff who write for and print The Manchester Observer newspaper and a brief scene in the film shows how the newspaper was printed by hand.

Steadily the film builds through the viewpoints of Joseph and his family, especially his mother Nellie (Maxine Peake), Hunt and the family who hosts him in Manchester, Bamford, The Manchester Observer reporters, and the representatives of the aristocracy and their enforcers in Parliament and the legal system and courts who fear the reformist movement and who will do anything to crush the workers and deny their political rights, to the climax when the local magistrate sets the yeomanry like dogs onto the crowds. Especially sinister are the informers and the constable who spy on the reformist meetings and report back to the authorities.

The film’s general tone tends to be matter-of-fact and sober; even scenes of carnage are treated in a dispassionate way. Joseph’s nightmare of the scenes of Waterloo revisits him, to his ultimate cost. At this point the film’s denouement is rather hurried, untidy and surreal, featuring a bizarre meeting between the fawning Lord Sidmouth and the grotesque Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny) and his wife, and this is the weakest part of the narrative. Nothing is said about the forced closure of The Manchester Observer and its replacement by The Manchester Guardian, founded by people antagonistic towards the aims of the reformist movement. We learn nothing of the fate of Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford or other significant reformist characters featured in the film: there are no brief end titles that could inform viewers of these people’s futures.

While the film can be long for most Western audiences, with very little apparent plot, I did not find it at all boring; if anything, I felt it was not long enough and could have covered more detail. The music soundtrack, featuring popular melodies that later were incorporated into church hymns during the later 19th century, is a highlight of the film. There are some slight historical errors – a woman is sentenced by a cruel magistrate to transportation “to Australia” (actually the colony of New South Wales at the time – but perhaps young viewers in Britain and Australia these days are not so well educated as those of my generation) – but on the whole, the film and the actors especially convey the lively flavour of society at all levels of Regency Britain.

Aspects of the film’s narrative may strike a chord with modern British viewers, as Britain currently limps through a dark historical period in which the vast majority of people are suffering from austerity policies imposed by a corrupt and remote government, the politicians of which from the Prime Minister down are incompetent, vicious and hell-bent on squeezing as much as they can out of the public for their own selfish interests and those of their secret masters in the City of London, the military and abroad.

Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 2): an attractive visual experience spoilt by repetitive propaganda police-state stereotypes

Neil Ferguson, “Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 2)” (2018)

In this second and final episode, Michael Palin ventures outside Pyongyang to spend a few days exploring parts of the North Korean countryside. He travels to the Demilitarised Zone where a guard tells him of the history of the Korean War – from the North Korean point of view which conflicts with what Palin knows. Palin muses on the ceasefire that currently exists between North Korea and the West and its consequences, one of which is that North Korea is compelled to maintain a large army made up of farm labour conscripts. Not far from the DMZ is a town, Kaesong, which during the Korean War was part of South Korea and therefore escaped the bombing that razed most North Korean cities and towns. In Kaesong, Palin is treated to some old Korean culinary traditions and stays at a Korean version of a ryokan. The next day, it’s onward to Wonsan on the east coast, a town targeted for development as a holiday resort for locals and foreigners. Still under construction, the holiday resort redevelopment already has an international airport ready and waiting for tourists who will not arrive until later in 2019. Palin is a bit nonplussed wandering around a huge airport terminal where the only other people besides himself are shop assistants with nothing to do except wait for non-existent customers.

Palin’s significant encounters with local people include meeting a farmer and her son. Farming is done by hand – few farmers have tractors or other heavy agricultural machinery that would obviate the need for labourers – and the demand for such labour is great. The farmer invites Palin into her sparsely furnished home for a big lunch feed. Palin thinks the farmer is trying to impress him with so much food to hide what he supposes are food shortages in rural North Korea. Later on, when Palin and one of his guides visit Mount Kumgang, he attempts to engage her in conversation about comparative politics and what she thinks of her country’s leaders: she tells him the North Korean people respect and identify so much with Kim Jong-un and what he brings to his people that to criticise him would be to criticise the people who support him wholeheartedly. In the end, the guide Soyang manages to parry the questions Palin zings at her quite cleverly and he has to admit defeat.

Palin’s visit concludes with a trip to a new district in Pyongyang developed especially as a showcase technology park and futuristic residential area. He marvels that the large district, boasting several incredibly tall skyscrapers built in a very distinctive style, has sprung up in the space of a calendar year. Leaving North Korea, Palin feels not a little regretful at saying goodbye to his guides (who he has become quite close to) and the charming people who have looked after him over the past fortnight.

While Palin is entranced by his hosts’ graciousness, the people’s cheerfulness, the culture and the beautiful countryside, he can’t quite escape his own conditioning and continues to view North Korea through the prism of a paranoid and closed police-state society ruled by a dynasty of rulers who permit no criticism and who demand absolute loyalty and suppression of individuality. He mentions the huge army North Korea maintains but appears not to understand the necessity for it: every year the United States, South Korea and other invited countries stage massive military exercises twice a year close to the North Korean borders, usually timed to coincide with the rice-sowing and rice-harvesting seasons, forcing the country to pull labourers from the farms to be on stand-by in case the exercises turn into actual invasions. The connection linking US sanctions against North Korea over the past 70 years, the lack of agricultural machinery that would make farming easier and bring in bigger harvests, the constant aggression by the US and South Korea, and the consequent need for a huge agricultural labour force and for a large army provide the context against which food shortages leading to apparent starvation and malnutrition occurred in the 1990s. All this unfortunately washes completely over Palin’s head; instead he lapses into quite sanctimonious monologues about how North Korea will have to choose between following its current path of independence, and accepting Western-style capitalism and democracy (which he views as inevitable if North Korea is to survive in the long term, though not without regret that it will destroy part of the country’s charm) to be part of the 21st century.

Aside from the dreary and repetitive propaganda Palin keeps reminding viewers of, the former Monty Python comedian is genuinely interested in seeing how North Koreans survive and thrive in an apparently restrictive society. It is a pity that he does not give them much credit for their resurrection from the nation-wide devastation and destruction brought by the United States in the 1950s that was further compounded by nearly 70 years of economic sanctions.

Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 1): Western insistence on stereotyping a country ruins a striking travelogue

Neil Ferguson, “Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 1)” (2018)

At least two years in the making, this 2-part travel documentary follows comedian / world traveller Michael Palin during a two-week trip exploring the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea / North Korea, marvelling at its visual and audio sights, and trying to engage as much as possible with the people he meets. The trip took place at a time when North Korea under its leader Kim Jong-un and South Korea under President Moon Jae-in were starting to warm to each other more and were seriously considering the possibility of reunification. In his first week in North Korea, Palin was taken by his guides through Pyongyang, and what he sees and experiences in the nation’s capital is the focus of Part 1 of the documentary.

The sights alone are worthwhile watching – Pyongyang is a clean city with wide spaces, some very eccentric and colourful architecture, and (for a city of its 3-million-strong size) not a great deal of car traffic. Fretting over the lack of Internet, the absence of a phone signal and the North Korean authorities’ insistence on holding his and the film crew’s passports once over the Chinese border from Dandong, Palin gradually settles into the life and pace of Pyongyang. He marvels at the government’s early morning broadcasts of songs aiming at motivating and inspiring people to look forward to a new day working for and benefiting North Korea. He visits an extravagantly built underground train station and takes a ride on the Metro. He gets a head massage by a woman in a barbershop – in North Korea, women run barbershops and hairdressing salons apparently – and visits a class of junior high school students. Their teacher looks a bit nonplussed at the strange Englishman blowing up a balloon depicting the globe and tossing it among the kids. When prompted as to what they’d like to do after leaving school, the youngsters say they want to be scientists, teachers and doctors, and to serve North Korea. One girl, declaring that she will be a famous writer, recites her poem about Mount Paektu (the birthplace of Kim Jong-il). Palin concludes from this little episode that, erm, the students aren’t taught critical thinking.

Among other visits, Palin meets a government-employed artist who creates visual propaganda and explains the symbolism behind what he does. He goes to a sports centre where teenagers are training in table tennis. The final day of his stay in Pyongyang is the May Day public holiday and Palin goes to a public park where people are picnicking with their families, drinking, dancing and generally having a great time. One drunken man crowns Palin with a tiara of leaves before being pulled away by his wife.

Palin obviously wants to accept everything at face value and believe that the happy and contented people he meets are genuine in their opinions, feelings and behaviour. Years of his own indoctrination by relentless Western media propaganda about North Korea – not to mention the agenda behind his visit – keep intruding on his thoughts, leaving him troubled and perplexed. The apparent poverty he sees around him – most notably depicted in shots of both Dandong in China and Sinuiju in North Korea on opposing sides of the Yalu River, as the train carries Palin across the bridge – is attributed to North Korean paranoia in sealing the nation off from foreign influence. Nearly 70 years of US sanctions (which target nations that dare to trade with North Korea as much as they do North Korea itself) against the country could just as likely have contributed to the nation’s poverty and its emphasis on cultivating every hectare of available land with rice and other important staple foods.

The constant insistence on portraying North Korea as a repressive police state by Palin and the film-makers is insidious and is sure to colour and shape Western viewers’ abilities and opinions in watching the program. There are moments where Palin comes close to showing a gross lack of respect for his hosts and his two guides especially. One might suspect he is being pushed by the film-makers and the film producers to ask questions he might find offensive. That the North Korean government stresses hard work, being part of a big family and working together, meeting communal and national goals, and generally having a positive attitude seems to be lost on Palin and the film crew, who brush all this effort away as propaganda.

The irony in making a film exploring North Korea and its people, that serves mainly to reinforce Western stereotypes about it being a repressive police state producing robotic traffic police and people unable to think for themselves, for Western audiences living in countries which themselves are increasingly repressive and obsessed with brainwashing people with identity politics propaganda and depriving them of the skills to think for themselves and evaluate differing opinions using reason, may not be lost on Western viewers.

Forward, Comrades! – an animated short on the downfall of the Soviet Union

Wang Liyin, “Forward, Comrades!” (2013)

This animated Chinese short, made by a student at the Beijing Film Academy, focuses on the twilight days of the Soviet Union from the viewpoint of a young girl. She lives with her parents in a shabby wooden bungalow and spends her days playing with toy construction bricks and talking to her pets while her schoolteacher mother is at work. The pets are a cat called Comrade Vladimir (as in Vladimir Lenin), a chicken called Comrade Felix (as in Felix Dzerzhinsky) and a duck called Comrade Beriya (as in Lavrenty Beria). The animals aren’t always well behaved: one day Comrade Beriya is naughty and the unnamed girl punishes him for “crimes” against socialism, while giving the instructions for a final knock-out blow against capitalist enemies to Comrade Felix.

One day a Russian-language TV broadcast informs viewers of a coup carried out by reactionary forces against the Soviet Union and from then on, things change dramatically for the girl and her pets. Comrades Vladimir and Felix die, Comrade Beriya is despatched by the girl’s mother to a restaurant, and the toy construction bricks and other belongings of the girl are also sold off. The family moves into an apartment block in a grey city, and the girl is given new American toys – various dolls and Disney character soft toys – to play with. On overhearing her mother discussing fashions and cosmetics with other adults, the child decides to run away back to her old home. At that very moment, there is a nuclear explosion in the sky and the girl is transported back to a world where her pets are very much alive and have formed a tank regiment.

The animation is quite crude and the story is very selective in its history. An entire episode of Soviet history, in which the Soviet Union transforms itself into an industrial power twice over (in the 1930s and then after the Second World War) under Joseph Stalin, followed by a long period of stagnation and corrupt rule under a series of Ukrainian or Ukrainian-allied politicians from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, is skipped over in the cartoon’s portrayal of the disintegration and collapse of the USSR. The girl’s decision to break away from her parents represents China’s decision to strike out on its own socialist path – though in reality, this involved zigzagging through the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, and later leader Deng Xiaoping’s embrace of economic flexibility combining elements of capitalism and socialism, to the current situation in which China is now wealthy enough to bring economic development to its more impoverished regions and to Third World countries in Africa and other parts of the world.

There are some interesting ideas about how capitalism can influence people to conform to labels and categories. On the whole though, the film shows a very sketchy and poor understanding of Soviet and Chinese history. It’s mainly of interest to people curious about the current state of Chinese animated film.