Yes, the movie’s release has been cancelled.* But at the core of the controversy surrounding The Interview — and the alleged reason Sony was hacked earlier this month and Guardians of Peace threatened violence against theaters that show the movie—is the less than favorable depiction of Kim Jong-Un. He’s shown as an American pop culture-loving, trigger-happy goofball of a dictator who still harbors complicated feelings about his relationship with his deceased dictatorial dad, rather than a god among men as North Korean legend dictates. (I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying Katy Perry’s “Firework” plays an integral role in Kim’s character arc.)
Amid all the real world drama, it is important to separate the movie’s relatively serviceable political satire from recycled, racist routines. Most of the celebrity reaction to the movie’s cancellation has been outrage and disappointment, that the North Koreans “won” because the less than favorable treatment of their Dear Leader was ultimately censored. But many of the jokes in The Interview are at the expense of well-worn Asian stereotypes, and the movie’s humor relies heavily on one-dimensional depictions of Asians that abound in American media that add little to the satire itself. As a Korean-American woman, I found the movie’s orientalism more offensive than any satirical depiction of Kim Jong-Un and the North Korean government.
The use of broken English, and making fun of Asian languages, is one of the first boxes this movie ticks. In The Interview, Dave Skylark, an American celebrity TV host (James Franco), and his trusty producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen, who also co-directed the film), score an exclusive interview with the elusive leader of North Korea. When Aaron is first contacted by the North Koreans, he is told to meet them in Dandong, China. He responds with two clarifying questions: “Did you just say China? And did you just say ‘dong’?” The joke here, of course, being that words of Asian origin sound like sex organs.
Most of the Korean characters speak in clipped sentences with dropped articles like “the,” with Rs and Ls reversed, that is typical of the generic Asian accent often heard in American media. What’s particularly annoying is when the white male Americans drop in and out of this accent, sometimes to joke with each other, like when Aaron tells Dave, “You no Skylark. You secret agent.”
The accent is also affected to communicate directly to the North Koreans, presumably so they will better understand the Americans. When Skylark arrives in North Korea, he is greeted by a North Korean welcoming committee, and is handed a mic. Slowly, in his best Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yuniyoshi impression, he tells the crowd, “We have different faces but inside, we’re same same.” Skylark then thanks the North Koreans for inviting him to their country with an earnest, “Konichiwa.” This gaffe, of mistaking Japanese for Korean, would make any Korean, or Japanese person for that matter, cringe.
The movie’s treatment of Asian women is also cringe-worthy. Skylark and Aaron’s fixer is a North Korean woman named Park Sook-Young who is responsible for coordinating all of the country’s propaganda. Aaron first meets Sook, portrayed by Diana Bang, in the mountains of rural China, where she descends from a military helicopter wearing a tight-fitting military uniform with knee-high leather boots. She barks orders, explaining the terms of the meet-up with Kim Jong-Un, and Aaron’s only reaction to the exchange as she walks away is, “Damn. She was sexy.” At one point, Sook lies in Aaron’s bed unannounced and uninvited, eager for him to come back so she can ravage him. Sook fulfills the role of the exotic “Dragon Lady” dominatrix, and it isn’t until after she seduces Aaron her intellect begins to be taken seriously.
The only other Asian women appearing in the movie are members of Kim Jong-Un’s harem, who show up, bikini-clad, to drink booze, play basketball topless, and drink margaritas in an old Soviet tank with Kim and Skylark. This portrayal of Asian women, as little more than submissive and sexy, is as old as Asian stereotypes come, recalling concubines of days past.
In its defense, The Interview makes an effort to point out the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Kim regime, and it lampoons the U.S. government as well. (“Kim must die. That’s the American way,” says Skylark while on his mission.) And Asian women aren’t the only women getting the short end of the stick in this male-dominated comedy. Lizzy Caplan’s character, a CIA agent who orchestrates the whole assassination plot, is accused of being a “honeypot” because there’s no way a woman as attractive as Caplan could be in such a high-level role in a U.S. government agency. It is clearly intended as satire, and all criticism of the movie should be through that lens. No one is safe from mockery in The Interview. Not even John Kerry, who is described as an “oak-looking motherfucker.”
Besides, North Korea is a county where truth is often stranger than fiction, and, to be frank, Skylark’s fictional trip to North Korea doesn’t start off much more weirdly than the true story of Dennis Rodman’s VICE-organized basketball tournament. North Korea is an easy target for satire, and the real geopolitical effects of this movie shouldn’t be discounted. But the use of Asian stereotypes adds little, if nothing at all, to the crux of the conversation. They’re cheap jokes, and it’s the cliched Asian accents, the degrading treatment of Asian women, and the generally orientalist tone ofThe Interview that should be driving the controversy.
Writer's Update: You can now stream the movie on YouTube watch it for yourself!
About the Author
Maxine Builder writes and thinks about global health policy, with a special interest in urban health and South and East Asia. A native New Yorker, she currently lives in Brooklyn, and once appeared on Manhattan's most bizarre public access program The Chris Gethard Show.