Monday, December 22, 2014

A Clash of Values

From the point of view of Asia, the Sony affair can easily be read as a clash of values, an inherent Asian respect for leaders against the Western value of unrestrained artistic license.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and his regime are widely and thoroughly reviled throughout Asia as in the rest of the world, yet there is also a widespread sense of unease about depicting a named living figure by name in such a gruesome way.
Sony’s chief executive Kazuo Hirai’s head metaphorically exploded when he learned about such scenes in the Sony produced movie, The Interview, about the assassination of Kim Jong-un, showing Kim’s hair on fire and chucks of his skull flying in all directions.

He intervened unsuccessfully to have the scene toned down, and also pulled the movie from Asian distribution, save for those bastions of Western values, Australia and New Zealand, well before the film was withdrawn globally following threats of violence at theaters where The Interview would be shown.
“A film depicting the killing of a living leader for the shock value of it is simply too rude and crude for Japan,” wrote Philip Cunningham, a writer and film critic. “Despite the predictable petulant cries of ‘caving in’, Sony Japan finally found the gumption to say no to its decadent and derelict Hollywood division.”

Very likely Hirai came under considerable behind the scenes pressure from the Japanese government, worried that the movie’s depiction of Kim might endanger some of its initiatives with the North, such as returning some of its citizens kidnapped in the 1970s and 80s.
North Korea might as well be on the planet Zog for all Hollywood moguls know or care, a strange place with a strange leader good for a few chuckles. But for Japan it is a close and dangerous neighbor.

The Interview was produced by Sony Pictures and Entertainment, which is technically a subdivision of Sony but historically has acted as virtually an independent player. Hirai’s attempted intervention was said to be almost unprecedented, and no doubt reflected growing worry in the Tokyo head office.
The movie division may well be practically independent, but it still has the name Sony in its title. Sony, one of the most widely recognized brands, is a word that is virtually synonymous with Japan.

“It was a stupid idea to have the movie made in the first place,” says Andrei Lankov, a Russian-born expert on North Korea based at Kookmin University in Seoul. “I don’t think they would have made about the assassination of the Chinese president or Iranian Ayatollah, especially using their real names”
A Confucian respect for the dignity of leaders, is engrained in the Asian character, regardless of whether they publically espouse fealty to “Asian Values” or not.

Draw a moustache on a poster showing the face of the King of Thailand can get you a fifteen-year prison term in Thailand. A British writer spent a couple weeks in jail after publishing a book that was deemed to injure the “dignity and integrity” of the judiciary.
Japan has a generally freewheeling press, but much of that freewheeling stops short of delving too deeply into the subject of the Japanese Imperial Family, who are never subjected to the indignities that the British royal family has often had to endure from the tabloid press.

This is not to say that Asians are always right. The draconian lese majeste laws in Thailand have been roundly and deservedly criticized by both outsiders and many Thais themselves. Foreign journalists have long had to chafe against strict rules of Singaporean authorities eager to preserve their leader’s dignity.

Nothing about this excuses the apparent retaliation by the North Koreans by hacking and exposing in a kind of Wikileaks fashion Sony Picture’s dirty laundry in public, although it is worth pausing to consider the implications of this unprecedented cyber attack.
It is not so much the technical aspects of the attack; the Northerners have previously attacked cyber targets in South Korea and possibly elsewhere. It may also have gotten help and technical advice from China’s extensive cyber warfare units. It has shown that Pyongyang can fight back effectively.

No, the most interesting aspect is cultural. Somehow the North Koreans knew exactly what to target to cause Sony Pictures the most grief and expense. Certainly, Pyongyang had a better sense of Hollywood culture than Hollywood has of theirs. Is there a Hollywood agent who has gone missing?
Pyongyang has a history of kidnaping people, especially Japanese, to teach their secret agents not just the language but important aspects of foreign cultures. For that matter, in 1978 South Korean film director Shin Song-ok was kidnapped from Hong Kong on orders from Kim Jong-il to help make movies.

He made several movies for Kim Jong-il before he escaped at a film festival in Austria. If nothing else, the Sony affair shows how much that the North Koreans understood and respected the power of cinema long before they understood the power of the internet.



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