“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.
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.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider buying the author’s novel.
For customers living in East Asia.
I read this post when you first wrote it. I found the concepts of humor interesting but I did not want to comment because I did not see the movie. Yesterday, my wife and I cuddled up and watched The Interview.
It was somewhat moronic and ridiculous, but it did have its moments. I thought that Randall Park stole the film. Seth Rogan was a bit flat and James Franco was trying too hard to imitate Jim Carrey.
Interesting though that South Koreans didn’t find it funny due to the cultural differences in humor.
Yeah, humor is very cultural, especially with the dumber stuff.
More sophisticated stuff, like Jonathan Swift, translates much better than The Interview.
Did any of your South Korean friends ask you to explain the humor to them?
Yes. It was mostly me explaining pop culture references.