Friday, November 4, 2011

"The Red Chapel" Takes on North Korea

Some of the most interesting moments in film are the ones that are accidental or unplanned. So it is with the daring Danish documentary, "The Red Chapel," that is so fascinating because it's a failure in many respects. You can tell what the filmmakers intended to do, which was to enter North Korea in the guise of an unassuming comedy troupe, put on a show, and subtly send up and expose the inner workings of one of the most repressive regimes on Earth, "Borat" style. Mads Brügger, who had this bright idea, enlists the help of two young Danish-Korean performers, Simon Jul Jorgensen and Jacob Nossell. Jacob, self-described as a "spastic," suffers cerebral palsy, has a severe speech impediment, and requires the use of a wheelchair for long distances. The trio head off to North Korea for two weeks, and quickly discover that they have have bitten off more than they can chew.

The glimpses inside Pyongyang, polished and perfect for the outsiders, are illuminating. However, it's the clashes among the would-be infiltrators that provide the film with its best moments. Brügger keeps wanting to push the boundaries, more willing to ingratiate himself to their hosts, yet also quick to seek out ways to make situations more awkward and uncomfortable. The other two, especially Jacob, are far more sympathetic to the people they encounter, and are more earnest in trying to fulfill their cover story of promoting cultural exchange. The lies they have to tell to keep up appearances clearly grate on Jacob, who is quicker to try and make friends and enjoy the offered hospitality, despite the unsettling reality of being in a society where the handicapped simply do not exist. Ironically, because of Jacob's impeded speech, he's the only one who can freely voice his opinion throughout, because the North Koreans can't understand his "spastic" Danish.

Brügger's tactics increasingly come off mean-spirited, especially as it is apparent that the North Koreans are easy marks, and fairly helpless in their ability to respond to basic irony and sarcasm. His narration of the documentary provides some sobering context about the reality of North Korea behind the carefully erected facade, but it's largely unnecessary. The way that events unfold, with the North Korean organizers taking over the comedy routine, removing all the Western elements and injecting propaganda, requires no underlining. Brügger's smaller stunts, like wanting to read a nonsense poem to a statue of Kim Il-Sung, are fairly harmless, but when he starts putting Simon and Jacob in positions they're clearly not comfortable with, things start to feel exploitative. Brügger's is accused several times of being cruel, of having no humanity or scruples. However, to his credit, this attitude does lead to some great moments of drama, like a tense blow-up he and Jacob have in the middle of an elaborate anti-American rally.

The more organic developments that tend to be more rewarding. The trio's guide and chief minder during their stay is a woman named Mrs. Pak, who takes a maternal liking to Jacob, remarking a few times that she thinks of him like a son even though they've only known each other for a few days. The sentiment may seem odd, but her emotion is clearly genuine. She affords the filmmakers a close-up look at a true believer, who becomes emotionally overwhelmed by nationalist sentiment, and recites party propaganda with great sincerity. However, the paranoia of the North Koreans is also palpable in every scene, in every passive-aggressive exchange, in every hesitation to answer a difficult question or depart from the official script. The individuals we meet become sympathetic very quickly, which isn't very conducive to Brügger's attempts to paint them as objects of scorn and ridicule.

The larger, sinister mechanics of the North Korean regime, on the other hand, are so pervasive and so omnipresent, that they're impossible to penetrate in any meaningful fashion. The Danes score few victories, and contrary to what the marketing copy says, never manage to pull off anything truly outrageous or subversive while they're in North Korea. On the other hand, if they had, they probably wouldn't have gotten out of the country in one piece, and certainly not with their footage intact. But "Red Chapel" is still an immensely rewarding watch, as the camera captures the filmmakers struggling to deal with an increasingly difficult experience and gradually adjusting their priorities from trying to send-up North Korea to simply surviving it. It's not the film they set out to make, but it certainly came out a compelling, thought-provoking one.

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