Sundance Film Festival

THE RED CHAPEL: North Korea as you've never seen it

red_chapel_01Image from THE RED CHAPEL.

One of the oddest non-fiction stunts in recent memory, THE RED CHAPEL combines two inherently dubious genres — the culture-clash comedy and the ambush documentary — and pushes them to surreal extremes. The film’s director, Mads Brügger, a Danish journalist, recruited two Danish-Korean performers, Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell (who is handicapped but prefers the term “spastic”) to pose as a comedy act, and convinced the North Korean authorities to allow them to perform in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, in the spirit of cultural exchange.

It’s clear from the start that there are no opportunities for journalistic coups — the Danes are assigned a full-time translator/companion, Mrs. Pak, and whatever footage they shoot is screened nightly by the authorities. But Brügger believes that by hoodwinking his hosts with deliberately awful comic skits he will reveal “the core of the evilness of North Korea.”

There are obvious points of contact with the guerrilla performance art of Sacha Baron Cohen. But while the creator of Borat and Brüno (a radical comic I’ve always been happy to defend) has no fear and deadly sharp instincts, Brügger doesn’t quite know what he’s looking for and can’t really act out, given that he’s in a police state. As such his “subversions” are limited to meaningless little gotchas, like reciting an inane poem about pineapples to a statue of the Dear Leader. He’s also hellbent on getting a troupe of North Korean schoolchidren to join them in a rendition of the Oasis ballad “Wonderwall” (what this will accomplish is unclear).

And yet, despite this tepid buffoonery, THE RED CHAPEL is compulsively watchable, and revealing simply for the glimpses of eerily desloate Pyongyang and outlandish propaganda pageants. Its ethical position is also more complicated than it first seems. Brügger is, to be blunt, an arrogant, unprincipled prick. Or perhaps he’s just shrewdly casting himself as the villainous foil to his more sympathetic accomplices. Either way, the movie is ultimately less about Brügger’s project than about the bizzare, not-quite homecoming of Simon and especially Jacob, who were born in South Korea and raised in Denmark (and don’t speak Korean). Jacob is the heart of the film, as well as its voice of reason. As for the kindly, sad, somewhat creepy Mrs. Pak, she is its tragic figure, a woman whose mysterious offscreen life is more haunting than anything we get to see here.