The band Laibach in Liberation Day (Joerund F. Pedersen/Sundance Now)

Liberation Day kicks off with scenes of North Korean military marches and scenes of mass adulation intercut with images of Western rock stars like Freddy Mercury riling up huge crowds from the stage. Apt comparison, though only one state is a temporary hysteria and the other a deep, lifelong commitment. The agitprop band Laibach is about to discover the difference on their very strange concert tour to the Hermit Kingdom.

Formed in the heyday of ex-communist Yugoslavia back in the 1980s, Laibach toys with fascist/communist/nationalistic imagery: drum lines, sinister uniforms, patriotic taxidermy, and columns of flame that echo Charlottesville’s tiki torches. The band from Slovenia rolls out bombastic, martial anthems, and reduces upbeat tunes from The Sound of Music to tuneless dirges. Laibach’s act might have seemed revolutionary back in the day. In a post-commie age of lightning memes and instant parodies, its broad, ponderous music, and pageantry can feel like an elaborate form of trolling. As co-director Morten Traavik remarks, the fall of Yugoslavia left Laibach something of an orphan.

Who more than Laibach should be the first Western rock band to serenade the isolated, Kim Jong-un–worshipping state of North Korea with totalitarian chic? Norwegian filmmaker Traavik has taken on the band’s debut in the country as his personal mission, building trust with 15 prior trips and searching for the perfect angle to make the dream come true. “We’re misunderstood, you’re misunderstood,” was the essence of the argument for Traavik to finally secure the gig. “And we’re both lost in time” might have fit, too.

As Laibach settles in for the show, a commemoration of the liberation in 1945 from Japanese rule, band members take a back seat to Traavik, who turns on a mixture of cunning and diva behavior to bend the musicians and their increasingly flummoxed Korean minders to his will as all tiptoe around in strained politesse. The regime finds Laibach’s video animations too racy and demands (lame) changes. State micromanagement stifles a band photo op by one of the country’s massive monuments. All the while Traavik negotiates, fibs, and thinks on his feet, trying to bring off the show and keep his crew motivated. It’s an impressive Artful Dodger–level performance.

The entourage reacts with blasé indifference to the theatrical yet oddly stark, threadbare environment around them. Their North Korean escorts seem alternately exhausted and frightened, murmuring “I beg you…I beg of you” while trying to tamp down potential trouble. It doesn’t seem to occur to the musicians and the crew that their stepping out of line could put the hosts in danger. When one of the group’s elder statesmen, Ivan Novak, takes a forbidden walk outside, he comes back gushing about “A utopia…it works!” The group is about to find just how well when the time comes to put on a sophisticated 2015 rock show with a 1950s North Korean electrical system.

Following exhaustive preparation, Laibach finally performs to a packed hall, meeting wary indifference and barely polite applause from North Koreans who don’t seem to get the act. Officials award kitschy medals as Novak exclaims, “This is a great moment for humanity.” The downer ending is embarrassing, deflating, and somehow funny, perfect for a courageous yet stubbornly self-involved film whose stars enjoy the trappings of totalitarianism but find the real thing not much fun to deal with.

Directed by Morten Traavik and Ugis Olte
Released by Sundance Now
English and Korean with English subtitles
Norway/Latvia. 100 min. Not rated