In mid June, the trailer for Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's comedy The Interview hit the Internet. The movie, due in October, stars James Franco and Rogen as an American talk show host and his producer, recruited to assassinate the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, while in Pyongyang to interview him.
The trailer features Franco and Rogen riding tanks, the actor Randall Park as Kim smoking a missile-size cigar, and a discussion, played for laughs, of reported North Korean propaganda claims that none of the Kim leaders defecate.
Within days, North Korea's Foreign Ministry slammed the film as "the most blatant act of terrorism and an act of war," and threatened "merciless" retaliation if it was released. The next day the North Korean military launched three short-range ballistic missiles into the sea, as if to hint, "See what I mean?"
The lesson: Never underestimate the power of marijuana in Hollywood, and phallic jokes about rockets and cigars.
It seems absurd for the leader of a nuclear state to be so incensed over an anarchic comedy by the guys who brought you This Is the End and Pineapple Express. But movies have held inordinate importance in North Korean politics, since even before the country's founding in 1948. One of the earliest actions by Kim Il Sung, called Great Leader, was to create a Soviet-supported national film studio, where he gave filmmakers and crews preferential food rations and housing.
His son, Kim Jong Il, called Dear Leader, was a movie buff who owned one of the largest private film collections in the world and whose first position of power was in running the regime's propaganda apparatus, including its film studios. For more than 20 years he micromanaged every new North Korean film production, as writer, producer, executive and critic.
The Dear Leader was less quick to take offense than his son Kim Jong Un is today — partly because, at least early on, he preferred threats he could follow up on; in those days, North Korean covert operatives still had the know-how to hijack a plane, bomb a state function and target a South Korean president.
Also, taking offense would have been an obvious case of the pot calling the kettle black. Most of his productions treated foreigners, Americans especially, the way Rogen, Franco and Goldberg treat Kim Jong Un: as cartoonish stock baddies. Western villains with Dr. Evil bald heads and names like Her Majesty's officer Louis London hatched devious schemes to destroy North Korea and take over the world.
As North Korea had no Western actors to speak of, they were first played by Koreans in heavily caked whiteface makeup. Later, American defectors and foreign prisoners, diplomats or visiting businessmen were "persuaded" to visit the studio for a day or a week and paste a monocle and fake mustache on for the cameras and dialogue-dubbers.
Like Rogen and Goldberg's work, Kim's films could be hilarious. But it was always unintentional. North Koreans don't do comedy. For that, you must want your audience not to take you seriously, something all three generations of North Korean rulers have been unable to do.
As a character type, Kim Jong Un may be difficult to place: educated in Switzerland, he is a basketball fan and alleged computer nerd, and there are hopes he may yet open up the Hermit Kingdom — but oops, there he goes again, testing ballistic missiles, executing his own uncle, and letting his press agents call South Korea's president a "filthy comfort woman."
One thing is clear: Kim deals in perception, not reality. He and his theater state must act as if his country still has any reason to exist, and so his first job is to sustain that illusion.
However, like anyone whose keenest concern is not to be laughed at, North Korea has quickly become ridiculous — and only more prone to take offense. Last year, the North Korean regime issued no threats of destruction when the Hollywood action thriller Olympus Has Fallen featured North Korean commandos attacking the White House; it had no problem being portrayed as rogue, dangerous or aggressive. But funny — that's taking it too far.
Rogen and Franco's film will not be released in North Korea, but with more and more Chinese bootleg DVDs turning up in rural North Korean markets every day, Kim and his cronies are surely worried. What will happen to him when the walls separating his people from the rest of the world finally come down, and the North Korean people realize that the Kims were never Great or Dear at all, only an appalling, criminal joke?
Paul Fischer is a filmmaker based in London and the author of the forthcoming book "A Kim Jong Il Production." © 2014 New York Times