Hollywood comedy “The Interview” has won a few fans in between sparking apocalyptic warnings from North Korea — but for defectors who escaped the communist state, there’s nothing funny about it.
That’s not to say they’re not watching it. Defectors based in the South have flocked to see the film at the centre of an escalating international row thanks to its lurid depiction of the assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.
The United States claims that the film’s presentation of Kim — whose family has ruled the reclusive, impoverished state for more than six decades — prompted Pyongyang to launch a massive cyber-attack on Sony Pictures, the studio that made it.
“Every defector I know has seen the movie,” said Kim Sung-Min, who fled the North in 1996 and now runs the anti-Pyongyang Free North Korea Radio station.
“We’ve talked a lot about this flick over the past week, and we simply did not understand why it gives foreigners laughs,” he added.
Internet links to the film quickly circulated amongst the South’s 20,000-strong defector community after Sony reversed its decision to axe it late last month following threats to cinema-goers from the shadowy Sony hackers.
But defectors have reacted to the movie with a mixture of shock and bafflement.
It’s not just that its crass humour is largely lost on a North Korean audience — it’s that growing up immersed in a personality cult, which gives god-like status to the ruling Kim dynasty, is not an experience that can easily be forgotten.
Even for defectors who have been in the South for years, it is jarring to see Kim ridiculed as a Katy Perry fan who has a complex about his dad.
“For me, it wasn’t a comedy — more of a bombshell, because of the way it made fun of Kim Jong-Un,” Park Sang-Hak, who defected to the South in 1999, told AFP.
But that is precisely the reason that Park, who leads a group of activists that regularly attempt to airdrop anti-Kim leaflets into North Korea, is planning to launch gas-filled balloons over the border carrying some 100,000 copies of the film on DVDs and USB memory sticks.
To see Kim portrayed as an object of ridicule — rather than the infallible, all-powerful leader depicted in state propaganda — would be nothing short of a revelation for most North Koreans, Park said.
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Some of them might initially react with anger.
“For North Koreans, it’s the equivalent of portraying Jesus as a debauched, crooked scoundrel. It would not be at all funny,” said Park.
“The most important takeaway for them would be that their great leader can be a laughing stock overseas and the United States could assassinate him… This would deal a blow to North Korea’s efforts to idolise the young leader.”
Park’s group is planning to launch the first of the giant balloons carrying copies of the film, along with bundles of anti-regime leaflets, later this month.
Some defectors have already managed to pass online links to the movie to informants living in the North near the border with China, where they have access to secret smartphones paid for by South Koreans, according to Kim Sung-Min of Free North Korea Radio.
At a recent screening of “The Interview” at a bar in Seoul, viewers said the puerile comedy — which relies heavily on butt jokes — could prove an unlikely tool against the Pyongyang propaganda machine if any North Koreans manage to secretly view it in their homes.
“The biggest threat to the regime is undermining the narrative they tell their people. This film actually gets that,” said Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, a US-based charity that helps defectors.
But that subversive message will have to battle with the fact that much of the film is incomprehensible to an audience raised on a diet of propaganda distinctly lacking in any kind of humour — let alone the frat-boy jokes that have won “The Interview” a widespread panning from critics.
“It didn’t give me much to laugh about as we North Koreans are not accustomed to comedy,” said Lee Han-Byul, a defector who was amongst around 100 people who crowded the bar to watch the film.
“There are no comedy films in North Korea, and we have (a) different sense of humour.”
One thing that left her particularly unimpressed was the lack of resemblance between Randall Park, the Korean-American actor who plays Kim, and the dictator himself.
“The actor did not look like Kim Jong-Un at all,” she complained. “In North Korea, actors in films are almost exact lookalikes of the heroes they are playing.”