Michael Palin in North Korea Review

What can be expected of documentarian and former Monty Python troupe member, Michael Palin, visiting North Korea? A neutered, shallow attempt at capturing the brutality and horrors of the disturbing dictatorship that grips the lives of twenty-five million is what can be expected. No, not quite. Palin is a solid draw and engaging narrator, and his work within Michael Palin in North Korea is as commendable as his efforts elsewhere. A happenstance trip that coincides with the meeting of North and South Korean rulers, mentioned often by Palin, but never drawn on as anything that will affect his adventure through the sightseeing streets “I think I am getting past the stereotypes; this is a culture where reverence to the great leaders is all.” Palin pens this as a positive, and that is most worrying of all.  

His trip is an admirable one, Palin wishes to observe and know the people, rather than the politics. But in doing so, he paints a picture so far removed from the western view that it is either a coddling of a faux democracy or a mismanaged attempt at understanding the values of a country thousands of miles away from my own. Switching the camera off at moments of interest is inevitable considering how ruthless and secretive the country is, but it is difficult to get to grips with such a broad topic in a mere feature-length span. Good in parts, ominous too, but not grappling well with the more pertinent, terrifying moments. It is the cheery nature of Palin that strikes most concerningly, the weak and tired smile spread across his face as he explains that to arrive in Pyongyang with a Bible is an act of fatal mismanagement.  

Those fatal finalities linger on the mind and screen often. It is the intricate details that Palin picks up on that strike better than the actual, broader points he attempts to make. The badges worn by countrymen, adorned with the faces of former leaders stick out most of all. His analysis and reading into statues and events are shoddy at times, but he at least concedes that he may be wrong. Still, balls of steel on the man that dares to criticise the intelligence of a North Korean lieutenant, directly to his face. Michael Palin in North Korea is better in the moments that Palin does not plan out. His trips to various landmarks and observations of the lifestyle and culture are interesting, but it is the disarmingly beautiful landscape that he taps into most of all, channelling his Around the World in 80 Days escapades. He, and his audience to some extent, are in the uncomfortable position of admitting the architectural charm and merits, while at the same time realising the ulterior motives behind these choices. The social, economic and psychological impact these blocks of buildings and spiralling towers has on a populous are hinted at, but never grappled with.  

Michael Palin in North Korea takes some time to get to grips with its surroundings, but once it does it shows the brainwashed children, the falsehoods that surround the politics and the fixation on sports and science. North Korea are breeding drones, and the fear that comes to the face of those Palin, a man well-regarded as genuinely lovely, showcases how disturbed and worried they are that they’ll step a toe out of line. Such is the fear that Palin and his crew inadvertently capture. They are blind to the real issues, even if they are presented in the families they visit. Families who know nothing more than to follow in the footsteps of their elderly, their trips in education lead to military or scientific endeavours, and their attempts at criticism brainwashed out of them as a criticism not of their great leader, but themselves.  

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