The Red Chapel: North Korea Behind the Curtain?

12/22/2010 4:00 AM |

The Red Chapel

Directed by Mads Brügger

If the illusion of functionality that sustains the North Korean state is achieved by a massive, coordinated system of performance and pageantry, then Danish documentarian Mads Brügger aims to fight theater with theater. Venturing to Pyongyang with a Korean-born Danish comedy duo, Simon Jul and the self-described “spastic” Jacob Nossell, on a program of cultural exchange, Brügger’s mission is to document the evil at the heart of Kim Jong Il’s dictatorship—or at the very least have some good subversive fun. But such goals are easier stated than achieved, since every stage of their trip is obsessively micromanaged by government handlers and, as they soon find out, in North Korea, cultural exchange is a one way street.

The comedians’ “act”, a riotous, intentionally awful mix of fart jokes, dreadful singing and general spazzing out, quickly gets the nix from the authorities, who replace it with a more regime-friendly routine. Basically, the film’s a series of efforts on the part of the filmmakers to see how far they can go, followed by a pushing back on the side of the Korean handlers, the whole thing couched in edgily cordial terms. Since ultimately Brügger can’t go very far at all, he has to settle for tiny acts of subversion like reading a bit of doggerel at the statue of Kim Il-sung. But even if his brand of theater is constantly neutered, Brügger’s documenting of North Korea’s far more successful theatrical project proves fascinating, whether it unfolds in the wings, as in the maternal fawning of the chief handler over Jacob, or on the national stage in the form of a terrifying, fist-pumping anti-American rally.

Opens December 29 at IFC Center