"Vice" makes North Korea seem silly, not scary

The much-awaited North Korea episode features a weird dolphin show, but no examination of the government's cruelty

Published June 14, 2013 3:54PM (EDT)


“Vice,” HBO’s adventure-focused newsmagazine show for dudes who regularly deny that they are hipsters, premiered two and a half months ago, amid a brouhaha of its own creation. Hoping to tape an episode of the show in North Korea and aware of new dictator Kim Jong-un’s love of the Chicago Bulls (a passion inherited from his father), Vice Media offered to bring Dennis Rodman and three Harlem Globetrotters over for a “foreign sports exchange.” Surprisingly, North Korea accepted, and soon images of Dennis Rodman and Vice employees cozying up to Kim Jong-un appeared in the media — just as the DPRK was making new threats to nuke America (while continuing with its standard repression and starvation techniques).  Rodman described Kim Jong-un as “awesome,” while Vice bragged about their access and the great meal they’d been treated to there. In the words of the New Yorker’s Lizzie Widdicombe, “What had seemed like a bold P.R. stunt by Vice now looked like cozying up to a dangerous dictator.”

The episode filmed during that trip finally premieres tonight, and while it goes much easier on North Korea than it could, or perhaps should, if it’s propaganda for anyone, it’s propaganda for Vice. Still, so little comes out of North Korea that even a flawed 30-minute documentary is fascinating. The first shot alone is Leni Riefenstahl-style iconic: a huge mass of North Koreans dressed in dark clothes sit in an arena. A few eagle-eyed citizens see something and rise, beginning to clap, and are soon joined by everyone in the frame, applauding, chanting and tearing up as Kim Jong-un walks in.

In a discussion of the episode arranged by HBO a few weeks ago, Vice CEO Shane Smith and Ryan Duffy, the journalist who went on the trip, explained that their strategy was to stop filming when the North Koreans asked them to because even what they were permitted to see was mind-boggling. North Korea put on a show for Vice, taking them on a tour meant to rehabilitate its international reputation, each stop more surreal than the next. They go to a Sea World-style aquatic park where Kim Jong-un has, allegedly, choreographed the dolphin show; a well-stocked yet deserted supermarket full of Western foodstuff that it’s impossible to purchase; a gym where suction cups are said to help with breast cancer; an Internet lab where a roomful of students stare at blank screens.

The climax is the basketball game, which Kim Jong-un surprisingly attends. He sits in the stands making conversation with Rodman as the Koreans and Globetrotters play a game with mixed teams that ends in a tie. Rodman makes a spontaneous speech in which he laments that the two nations are not better friends. And then the crew and players are whisked off to a private dinner where no cameras were allowed but the state's. So viewers get a slideshow of official images accompanied by narration of what happens next: The visitors get drunk with Kim Jong-un, an all-girl group sings the theme song to “Rocky,” and Rodman belts out “My Way.”

Throughout its first season, “Vice” has largely forsaken context. It introduces a wildly dramatic subject -- whether it’s assassinations in the Philippines or a Taliban training program -- with a slight skimming of the history involved. "Vice" is entertainment that encourages its watchers to check Wikipedia if they want to know more. The same is true in this episode: Smith is more interested in establishing Vice’s anti-North Korea bona fides -- the company has previously filmed a series of critical documentaries there, and he has personally been banned from the country -- than fleshing out a profile of the nation or its leader. The episode tells viewers that the North Koreans revere Kim Jong-un as a god, but gives us no sense of the kind of cruelty or dysfunction he oversees. The North Korea in this documentary seems more like a farcical, ridiculous, absurd place than a dangerous one, more like something out of a Gary Shteyngart novel than out of Solzhenitsyn.

Vice is very aware of the criticism of its presence in North Korea and at the end of the documentary defends the visit there as genuinely destabilizing. Duffy describes the trip as historic, suggesting it may create some cognitive dissonance in the citizenry -- North Koreans will wake up one morning to see that Kim Jong-un partied with the American imperialists. At the end of the trip, Duffy finally gets the guides to allow the crew to make one spontaneous stop at a playground, where the Globetrotters play basketball with a group of (cellphone-having, roller-skate-wearing) schoolchildren. It’s a hallmark moment that "Vice" wastes no time congratulating itself for achieving.  Gauche as that is, they did accomplish something.

By Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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