Doc of the Day: The Red Chapel Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: The Red Chapel

Posted in Days of Docs by - December 24, 2011

Can you introduce a sense of humor to a culture as repressed as North Korea? Three Danish comedians decided to try to find out. The sixth and final day of North Korea Week.

Dir. Mads Brugger, 2010, 87 min

See, no holiday can break my dedication to this project. I hope you jerks appreciate this!

I was not prepared for this movie. I went expecting one thing, but what I got was so radically different I had trouble adjusting. This wasn’t a bad thing at all, though! Only hacks dislike a movie because it plays out different from how they imagined it would. But it would probably be preferable to go into The Red Chapel with some idea of what you’re in for.

Danish journalist Mads Brugger and Korean-born comedians Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell traveled to North Korea under the guise of a “cultural exchange.” In reality, however, the trio were on a mission to cause as much discreet mischief as possible. When brought before a statue of Kim Il-Sung to pay their respects, they read an awful children’s poem. Their official gift to Kim Jong-Il is a pizza peel. They’ve made their act as awful as possible, just to see how polite their hosts can be in “appreciating” it. It seems like a ripe concept for hilarity, and I thought going in that it would be like Borat in North Korea.

That, however, was not the case. For one thing, the regulations for the “cultural exchange” are so strict that any attempt at merrymaking is stamped down upon almost immediately. The sad fact is that any joke subtle enough to slip by the censors who daily reviewed the footage the documentarians took are rendered less effective by the fact that even the audience needs them explained to them. The efforts are occasionally inspired, like Simon’s repeated attempts to play “Wonderwall” as part of the act, but this film was maybe a quarter as funny as I expected it would be.

But it seems as though even in the middle of filming, or at least in post-production, the filmmakers also realized that they weren’t making the kind of movie they’d set out to make. Brugger wished to use satire to expose the rotted heart of the North Korean state, but instead he slowly comes to realize his own hypocrisy, how he’s trying to fight dishonesty with dishonesty. It’s an unusual clash of motivations, as The Party tries to use the team for propaganda purposes, while the team is trying to use them for satire. The film is more upfront about its slant and the intentions of the people who made it than any documentary I’ve seen.

Brugger presents a novel hypothesis on the behavior of the North Korean citizenry. Rather than a populace of brainwashed robots lockstep in support of the Great and Dear Leaders, Brugger suggests that they are really a nation full of desperate actors. Acting, and putting on a brave face, is the central theme of the film. Every single person the subjects interact with are putting on a show. The government has set them up to send out a shiny, happy view of their country to the outside world. The entire city of Pyongyang is a stage, a fa├žade of prosperity erected to fool Earth and the peasant class. But just as no foreigner buys it, Brugger doesn’t think the average Korean buys it either. His idea is that the people are acting for the higher-ups, trying to get by the best that they can and avoid being sent to a concentration camp. It’s a dizzying swirl of mixing falsehoods: the people acting for the government, the people acting out the government’s lies, and Brugger, Simon, and Jacob acting for them all.

Jacob emerges as the most fascinating character in the film. Affected by cerebral palsy (he describes himself good-naturedly as “spastic”), he stands out painfully in a country where the disabled are normally hidden away in camps to die. The North Koreans can’t help but treat him as a curiosity, whether it’s the group’s minder coddling him as if he’s a child or their artistic liaison drastically reducing his role in his own performance so as not to alert the audience to his condition. The relentless dual strain of keeping up his act and enduring the condescension of everyone he meets wears Jacob down as the story goes on. He grows increasingly impatient with Brugger’s ideas, and is the first to call him out on his hypocrisy. He’s also the funniest thing about the movie, being the only member of the group to take full advantage of the privilege say whatever is on his mind aloud without fear of reprisal, since none of their hosts speak Danish. Both Brugger and the Koreans attempt to exploit his disability to manipulate the emotions of their respective audiences, but Jacob has none of it, and that essentially turns him into the film’s moral center.

The Red Chapel, sadly, isn’t a Korean Borat. Instead, it’s something much more complex, much more challenging, and ultimately much more interesting. For me, it provided a great exercise in not allowing preconceived notions of what I think a movie should be limit my enjoyment of it. So now that you’ve read this, you have no excuse, right?

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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