Watching “The Interview” in Korea


The missiles say “war is starting” and the large script under Seth Rogen and James Franco’s names says “don’t believe these ignorant Americans.”

“The Interview” is an American buddy comedy, owned by Sony Pictures, primarily making fun of North Korea. Naturally, North Korea responded by hacking Sony’s database and releasing several of that company’s upcoming films. The North Koreans (probably) then threatened to commit ACTS OF TERROR against cinemas daring to showcase The Interview. That my native country, for the first time in 13 years, reacted to the THREAT OF TERROR by not pissing all over itself pleases me greatly. That the people of my native land banded together to make The Interview the most successful VOD release ever gives me hope. That the president shut off the North Korean internet in retaliation just makes me laugh. Fuck you very much, Kim Jong-un.

One of the really fun things about “The Interview” is that, even as a long-time resident of South Korea, North Korea is so opaque and weird I can’t really tell you if or how it reflects reality. Even Randall Park, the actor who portrayed Kim Jong-un, prepared for the role by channeling Charlie Chaplin, watching “The Last King of Scotland” and giggling at pictures like this.

Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-un

NBA Champion Dennis Rodman with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. This magical moment coincided with the brief but real Dennis Rodman for the Nobel Prize movement. 

Because I have no idea how offensive, funny or frightening The Interview is to North Koreans, I’m going to tell you about how South Koreans see movies like this and, indeed, American humor in general. Compared with the US, Korean humor has two main differences – sarcasm and acceptable targets.

Sarcasm basically doesn’t exist in South Korea (or China, or Japan for that matter). For me on a personal level, I respect this cultural difference deeply and try to understand. Then I use these ancient and valid cultural practices as an unlimited source of credulous victims. On a society-wide level, double speak mostly comes across as incomprehensible or, occasionally, deliberate dishonesty. When Dave Skylark (James Franco’s character) expresses his admiration for Kim Jong-un, for example, many Koreans will take that as a literal expression of the filmmakers’ beliefs, at least until the movie’s third act. As such, a lot of the humor in The Interview is simply not funny for Koreans.

As far as acceptable targets go, in the US we like to tell each other that there’s no right to not be offended. In Korea, there actually is such a right. Korean defamation laws and reputation protection lies protect people from critical comments and insults, even when the unflattering news is true. I’d encourage you to look at Kang Ju-won’s legal blog for a further explanation of this mindset. What this means for Koreans in general, however, is that freedom of speech takes a distant backseat to the protection of face.

As such, the dog eating jokes in The Interview come across much more as an attack on Korea’s collective face than a harmless jab. The accents also rile some Koreans. The fact that most Koreans do speak with an accent is not sufficient to overcome the reputation attack that comes with showing substandard English pronunciation.

None of this is to say that all South Koreans dislike this sort of movie. For example, my incredibly chill South Korean girlfriend thought it was funny in a gross out sort of way. Some of the Koreans interviewed in this article thought it was a nice way to thumb one’s nose at the commies. In general, though, I’d expect indifference for South Korean audiences of The Interview.

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For customers living in East Asia.


  1. Thanks!
    Everything aside, this movie is no good for me because Park doesn’t/didn’t really resemble Kim. “Planet of the Apes” was great, I think, because (first and foremost) the apes really looked like apes.
    But, I wish we could be more like America with regard to freedom of speech. I mean people like Bill Maher really crack me up.
    Notice that the Korean defamation/insult crimes are under the heading “Crimes Against Reputation” (as oppsed to labeling them under some slander/libel crime). In Korea, the focus (like you say) seems to be more on “reputation” rather than on “freedom of speech.”
    Besides “culture,” I also think there are too many people residing in such a small area, and too many people end up talking about the same thing. It’s almost always what’s trending on Naver/Daum… So, people sometimes get paranoid.
    Personally, I think the American level of freedom (of speech) is the way to go. I did not necessarily used to think so. Right now, we cannot criticize freely even w/ facts. I hope more exposure and scrutiny of Korea will steer (willingly or unwillingly) it towards that direction. Because ironically, Korea (I think) seems to care deeply about its “reputation” w/ regard to other countries/media.

    1. I agree. Thanks for the comment and for the original article you wrote about freedom of speech.

      What were your old views, if you don’t mind my asking?

      1. I felt “freedom” did not necessarily have to be to the extent/level in the U.S. Not all countries should always follow U.S. standards.

      2. True. Very interesting. I’m actually not sure where to stand on free speech. On one hand, I grew up thinking it was inviolable but on the other, I see laws like anti-Holocaust denial stuff in Germany and wonder if free speech might not be a universal good.

  2. Well, I’m only half-Korean and I’ve never been there, so I’d say I’m speaking from an American POV. I saw the preview, but not the movie. It didn’t seem funny to me. I feel the same way about shows like South Park—they might get a few chuckles out of me, but I find it just sort of leaves me cold. Maybe it’s that Korean half of me coming out? On the other hand, I love movies like Annie Hall, and there’s plenty of sarcasm and stupidity there.

    I can’t imagine going to see the Interview, but I suppose I will at some point just to have the right to have an opinion about it.

    1. It’s a vaguely homoerotic buddy comedy with serious Rodman in NK references.

      It’s not a smart film. 😉

    2. By the way, I had no idea you were half Korean. Is your family connected back in Asia still or was your family’s immigration a 19th century type deal?

      1. My mother moved here when she was in her thirties. My half-brother moved a few years later as a child…so he doesn’t remember the Korean he learned as a little boy. My half-sister moved here when she was 16 or so, and she speaks both Korean and English perfectly. As far as I know, we don’t have any family back there, but I could be wrong. My mother was not forthcoming about such things. I didn’t find out I had another older half-brother until I was 8! He showed up one day out of the blue, unable to speak English. Apparently he had to stay in Korea until he finished his army service, then he stayed on anyways, got engaged, etc. At 8 it didn’t occur to me to be pissed that no one told me sooner. Instead I just thought, “Oh cool, I have another half-brother I didn’t know about. I guess I’ll bring home my grammar books and teach him English.”

        I don’t speak any Korean. When I was in kindergarten apparently I said something in Korean to the teacher and acted like she was supposed to understand me, so she told my parents and my mom stopped speaking to me in Korean, except when she got mad. So I know a lot of streams of curses.

        In college I thought about taking Korean, but it wasn’t offered (or at least, it wasn’t offered in classroom format). So I took French instead.

      2. Wow, secret siblings and mystery extended family. Your family sounds intense.

        The push for a monolingual society destroys so much skill in.the US. One guy I know had a similar experience with his 100% Mexican family. In kindergarten some teacher got offended that he could speak Spanish, his family decided to speak English only and now he can’t speak at all.

        Kind of a waste.

      3. Very much a waste. I’m still pissed about it. I’m sure the confusion I had when I was four would have been straightened out in no time.

        There’s a school here in Tucson that teaches kids several foreign languages at once, while they’re in that sponge-absorption age. They learn math, science, history, etc, all in foreign languages. They don’t even realize that what they’re doing is incredible, because they’re too young for all that self-doubt. I saw it in action; it’s pretty amazing. If I had kids, I’d definitely send them there.

        My family is intense. I wish they could be a bit more boring. 🙂

  3. It’s interesting to get a personal insight into Korean society – not something I get a lot of here in India (our news and media are too much into the US to focus enough on the rest of the world). And I think all that the North Korean outrage over ‘The Interview’ achieved was putting the movie on everyone’s to-watch list; if for nothing else then, as the person before me has commented, then simply to form personal opinions on the movie!

    1. That’s why I watched it!

      I agree, though. The world is big and I hope we all get to experience more of it. 🙂

  4. Interesting. I couldn’t imagine a world without sarcasm. It does make sense that certain cultures just don’t use sarcasm and that’s good to know as I’d hate to offend someone. However, this movie has no appeal to me. Haven’t seen it and I doubt I will.

    1. I wouldn’t say zero sarcasm, but it’s close.

      On the other hand, due to the structure of the language, Koreans have a huge and much less lame bag of puns with which to play.

      A lot of the “universals” I grew up with didn’t turn out to be so universal. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting.

  5. I haven’t seen the film but from talking to people who have I would think both the North and South Koreans would be upset that this was such a badly made film independent of the anti-North Korean sentiment. Did you actually enjoy the movie?

    1. I honestly liked it. It’s not particularly brave or smart, but it is funny to people like me who get off on irreverent cultural references.

      That said, I’m the same person who liked Scary Movie 4, so take my opinion with a shaker or two full of salt. 😉

  6. Happy 2015! Thank you for being you, and for your inspiring posts!
    Best wishes

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