'Napalm': Film Review | Cannes 2017

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A rare first-person look at a forbidden place.

'Shoah' director Claude Lanzmann takes an exceptional trip inside North Korea in this new documentary, which premiered as a Special Screening in Cannes.

At 91 years and counting, venerable documentary filmmaker Claude Lanzmann still has it in him to both inform and go against convention. The creator of the monumental Shoah, as well as several other works on the Holocaust, turns his camera this time on North Korea — a place that few directors have ever ventured into.

What he pulls from it is Napalm, an almost short film by Lanzmann standards (it clocks in at 100 minutes), but one that offers up a very different take on a place that has been on much of the world’s shit list for as long as anyone can remember. Not that this combination travel diary and personal recollection in any way champions the regime of Kim Jong-un and his predecessors, but it does give us a good idea of how North Korea became what it is, and why it is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Premiering as a Special Screening in Cannes’ Official Selection, Napalm — a film whose title takes on true meaning by the end — may not necessarily be for the usual crowd that has followed Lanzmann’s WWII-related work over the years, which may make it a tougher sell than his previous efforts. But given how much the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is in the news these days, boutique distributors may see this as a way to hit upon an urgent topic that currently concerns us all.

With a gift for telling stories and rather incredible sense of hyperbole, Lanzmann narrates a film split into two sections. The first follows the director and a skeleton crew as they embark on a guided tour of sites in Pyongyang, while the second consists of a single long sequence where Lanzmann recounts his first visit to North Korea back in 1958 (in a story that was mentioned in his excellent book The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir).

During the strictly controlled tour, Lanzmann visits national monuments and a military museum consisting of tanks, planes and other weapons seized from the “U.S. aggressor” (as the guide constantly claims) both during and after the Korean War, which ended on July 27, 1953 — a date that the North Koreans see as their V-day against the enemy.

Lanzmann describes it as the moment “time was brought to a standstill” in the DPRK, leaving the country decimated and in a state of constant readiness for battle that has gone on for 60-plus years thus far, with a capital city that has become “monumental and empty.” At one point, he films a daily ceremony where brides-to-be place bouquets of flowers at the feet of two giant statues celebrating Kim Il Song and Kim Jong Il, showing how local traditions are bound to the immortal myths surrounding North Korea’s leaders.

But the filmmaker also takes his time to chronicle the devastating bombing campaign that the U.S. Army engaged in, resulting in 4 million civilian deaths and nearly the complete destruction of Pyongyang. According to Lanzmann’s guide — who you have to take at her word — 480,000 bombs were dropped on a city whose population only numbered 400,000, making for more than one bomb per person. Add to that the 32 million liters of napalm that were used at the time, and one can perhaps better understand why North Koreans tend to use the “aggressor” suffix when discussing America.

Lanzmann’s best work has revealed in painstaking detail how civilians were targeted and summarily executed during the Second World War, and here he uses archive footage of Pyongyang’s leveling — entire blocks decimated or in flames, children screaming over the corpses of their parents — to explain why the horrors of the Korean War will not necessarily be forgotten by those that suffered the most from it.

After a more amusing excursion to a movie set and a taekwondo academy with some killer fighting girls, the film’s second half returns to the lengthy interview method of Shoah and other movies — except this time the interviewee is Lanzmann himself, who tells a long, rambling but also fascinating and poignant story about his trip to the country as part of the first Western delegation to be invited there after the war ended.

During that visit, Lanzmann — who as a young Communist was eager to discover the DPRK for himself — met a young nurse whose beauty he describes in near-lecherous ways, explaining how he was so smitten with the woman that he set up a date with her that almost brought the two of them a heap of trouble. And while he admits that his goal may have been to get the nurse into bed, what he encountered was a person suffering two-fold: first from the American bombings, then under a regime that has almost never let its subjects communicate with the outside world.

Lanzmann may definitely be in love with his own voice — some viewers will surely find the film’s latter half too long — but he’s also a supreme storyteller who has relied on first-hand accounts throughout his career to bear witness to some of the darkest periods in modern history. In Napalm, he uses his own experience to fuel the narrative, mixing his visit in 2015 with memories of the past. What results is a unique look at a place and people who we have mostly known through news reports or government propaganda, but rarely in movies through such a human point of view.

Production companies: Margo Cinema, Orange Studio
Director: Claude Lanzmann
Producer: Francois Margolin
Director of photography: Caroline Champetier
Editor: Chantal Hymans
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Sales: Orange Studio

In French, Korean
100 minutes

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