The Red Chapel (Mads Brügger, 2009)

When I wrote on my “Wanted” page that I had already seen every documentary on North Korea, it was hyperbole. I confess. I also confess that the aspect of The Red Chapel that interested me most was not its un-kept promise of a Borat-esque series of ironic encounters between Danish comedians and DPRK officials, but the fact that Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa Productions bankrolled it.

Also, the promo I saw looked amusing, with a couple of Korean born Danish comedians, one of whom has what I think is Cerebral Palsy (he describes himself as a “spastic”) attempting to lead a group of North Koreans in a sing-a-long of “Hey Jude.” The promo misrepresents the film in the way that director Mads Brügger misrepresents himself to the DPRK government and in the way that the nation of North Korea attempts to misrepresent themselves to the rest of the world: intentionally and egregiously. Brügger’s gambit is to enter North Korea under the pretense of cultural exchange, bringing with him a left-leaning, two man theater group which will perform a comedy revue for make benefit glorious People’s Democratic Republic.

The clever part of his plan is to present the Koreans with a PR opportunity that he can easily undermine. Danish-Korean comedians Simon Jul Jørgensen and Jacob Nossell are that opportunity. Not only are they prodigal sons who return to Pongyang (as opposed to Seoul) but to sweeten the deal for both parties, Nossell has a physical handicap. North Korea is rather famously unfond of handicapped children -- their care for them could be considered quite Spartan, in the sense that too many people learned about only too recently from Zach Snyder’s 300.

But because of his physical impediment, Nossell’s Danish speech is unintelligible to the Korean handlers, allowing Nossell to speak his mind. This is used to comedic effect by Brügger, usually in the formula of Jacob remarking on the remarkably ugly nature of North Korea’s art while Brügger tells his handlers that Jacob is marveling at its beauty. This is as funny as the movie gets. The other funny part (I apologize for spoiling it) is Brügger’s recitation of Piet Hein’s well known grook, “Love is like a Pineapple / Sweet and Undefinable” at a monument to Kim Il-Sung. He tells the officials that Hein was a poet who crusaded for worker’s rights.

Those deadpan comedic moments are as funny as The Red Chapel gets, and the rest of the film is heartbreaking, for all sorts of reasons. Mads Brügger narrates the whole film, and his comments lurch from blatant attempts to tell the audience how to feel and interpret a scene to genuine insight, and are occasionally both at the same time. Rather more distressing is the State assigned tour-leader, Mrs. Pak, who accompanies the trio of Brügger, Nossell and Jørgensen for most of their stay. Most of the Koreans seem fearful of Jacob Nossell, unaccustomed as they are to even seeing the physically challenged. But Mrs. Pak dotes on him, becoming affectionate to a bizarre degree.

The obvious assumption is that as the state handler, she is to show in no uncertain terms that North Korea has no problem with the handicapped. But if that is so, she goes well beyond her duty, maybe even developing genuinely motherly feelings for Jacob. Jacob, initially creeped out by her smothering presence, seems to actually warm up to her. It is difficult to know what aspect of this woman is real when everything she does is under surveillance and informed by obligation to the state. When she cries on cue before a monument to the Dear Leader, Mads speculates in voiceover that the tears she sheds out of “National Emotion” are an act, but one that masks a cathartic release of deep hurts that cannot be expressed for fear of provoking the reprisal of her masters. Of course, he also speculates earlier in the film that she is a heartless interrogator. Whether a broken, fearful sycophant or a brainwashed cog of an evil machine she is a wretched creature to be pitied.

But Mrs. Pak is the interesting crack in the film’s foundation. The uninteresting crack is that the whole operation was doomed to fail from the get-go. The fake theater duo intends to stage a stunningly stupid and tin-eared vaudeville routine filled with slapstick and drag and recitations of Hans Christian Anderson which is greeted with confused, frowning faces when rehearsed for the DPRK handlers. It is reworked by the North Koreans into something even more grotesque than what Brügger initially devised. You see, Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat and Bruno characters only worked because he targeted people who, with few exceptions, were too civilized or craven to pose a physical or intellectual threat, while editing takes care of any self-awareness on the part of his subjects. The dour North Koreans do not suffer irony, or understand it.

It should be noted that Mads Brügger admits that he is making a propaganda film, and that he is using his comedians, especially Jacob Nossell, and that all of his footage is controlled by DPRK “video experts.” The result is a film that is challenging for all the wrong reasons. Jacob in particular is terribly lovable, and senses the wrongness of what Mads is attempting. His growing awareness culminates in a nerve-wracking sequence where he and Mads are forced to march in a demonstration in which an enormous assembly chants “death to America.” Jacob refuses to join the cheer, loudly, in his unintelligible Danish, as Mads pleads with him to play along.

Jacob is not a simpleton, but he is simple because he clearly cannot afford to complicate the world the way most of us do. The deception, the smug (and unworkable) plans that Mads has for his film and the brutal notion of IRL trolling a place as cursed with suffering as North Korea don’t sit well with Jacob, and even his cool headed, sardonic comedic partner seems quite put off when the North Korean advisors decide to rework his routine to both exclude Jacob and to glorify the regime they intended to mock. And it’s not like mockery is an especially worthwhile pursuit.

Unintentionally, Brügger has produced one of the most complete pictures of just what sort of person lives in Pongyang. Too bad he’s a douchebag who spouts liberal platitudes about how “comedy is the soft spot of all dictatorships.” Unfortunately, it’s not always the strong point of Danish documentarians.

Now how can we get Werner Herzog to make a movie about North Korea?

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