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The Red Chapel

Dir: Mads Brügger

Rating: 3.7/5.0

Kino Lorber

88 Minutes

Here’s what I know about North Korea: it is a mysterious dictatorship run by a stout man in sunglasses and a jumpsuit who was also the villain in Team America: World Police. There’s a demilitarized zone separating the country from its Southern counterpart, with whom technically North Korea is still at war. Oh, and one time Kim Jong-Il kidnapped a South Korean filmmaker to direct, of all things, a Godzilla rip-off.

In all seriousness, it’s hard to learn about North Korea because the country has been culturally isolated for 50 years and, even if you were allowed into the country, you wouldn’t be able to find out much that hasn’t been fabricated by the people in power. What we do know is that the place is fucking frightening and Kim Jong-Il threatens the safety of the world on a weekly basis like some “G.I. Joe” villain. And here comes Danish journalist-director Mads Brügger to visit and play a grand prank on North Korea where he stages a terrible variety show with a famous transvestite-themed Danish sketch and an acoustic performance of “Wonderwall,” aided and abetted by two Danish-Korean comedians, one of whom is a self-described spastic, in order to “Expose the very core of the evilness of North Korea.”

The Red Chapel refers not only to the fake theatre troupe that Brügger, the chubby, tattooed Simon Jul and the spastic, bespectacled Jacob Nossell pose as, but also a group of Communist spies that operated in Nazi Germany. This is one of the many moments of absurd subversion Brügger and his companions indulge in during their visit — Brügger reads a silly poem comparing love to a pineapple in front of an important statue of Kim Il-Sung, and the comedians sing a Danish hippie song from the ’60s at the DMZ. Both times they must convince their handlers that what they’re doing is a solemn, Socialist-minded action.

Both Borat and Bruno are good touchstones to understand what The Red Chapel is doing — venturing into a foreign land to reveal something deeply wrong about a country through culture clash — though Brügger’s film is less obviously staged (on the filmmaker’s part, at least, not so much on the North Korean government’s part) and also less interested in obviously trying to elicit desired reactions through obvious comedic antics. Mostly, The Red Chapel is about what North Korea is like to welcome foreigners and what goes on under the guise of “cultural exchange.”

What they see is meticulously planned sightseeing tour where they are never without their handlers, particularly the friendly Mrs. Pak, as they go to museums, famous landmarks and idyllic locations. It’s all about what we don’t see, though — while the camera shows the forced smiles and public, grandly orchestrated lies, Brügger, narrating like a Werner Herzog doc, injects his commentary and analysis, noting that, as they picnic, past the forest lie the death camps and that only select people are allowed to live in the capital city of Pyongyang, which is always creepily deserted.

Brügger spends much of The Red Chapel focusing on Nossell, a rarity in a country that reportedly sends its physically impaired to death camps. Brügger supposes that, to the government, Nossell will be a propaganda tool to dispel that notion. But, he also sees Nossell as a secret weapon in his mission — because the government reviews their footage every night, they must be careful what they say on camera and Nossell’s speech impediment-stricken Danish make him incredibly hard to understand for any North Korean censors and can thus speak freely. Brügger is focused on his political agenda, Nossell is our emotional “in” — not for his disability, but for the ways the visit affects him. It’s surely a life-changing experience for a barely-19-year-old comedian to spend a couple of weeks living under a totalitarian regime, even as a tourist. Especially compelling is his relationship with the handler Mrs. Pak, who takes such a liking to Nossell that she treats him like he’s her own son.

Brügger and company end up capturing some amazing stuff as they visit schools where the students perform music and dance like they were drilled by R. Lee Ermey and attend a gigantic televised rally to commemorate the day, according to the North Korean government, that the United States caused the Korean War — thousands of angry people marching with their fists in the air for the sake of a government-orchestrated lie. Which is the ultimate heartbreak of North Korea, a people raised to be slavishly devoted to the Great Leader, believing the grand lies of a totalitarian regime.

While disturbing (yet very funny) and even a bit touching The Red Chapel is missing a proper denouement (or, if you want to be crude, a “payoff”). Maybe it’s that the journalist in Brügger doesn’t want to editorialize here to let the viewer figure it out, but the filmmaker in him perhaps should have given the story some closure. Nossell gets to have a final thought, but Brügger doesn’t take the chance to make a big statement about his experience. Then again, the narrative of North Korea isn’t quite over yet, and who knows how that will turn out.

by Danny Djeljosevic

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