Sundance Docs: The Red Chapel

By Karina Longworth in Festivals, Reviews, Video
Friday, January 22, 2010 at 4:47 pm

For all the documented problems Sundance has had in maintaining its rep as a showcase of high-quality American independent narrative cinema, the festival has remained the premiere US platform for American nonfiction film. 24 hours into 2010 festival, the most talked about title on the ground (not to mention on Twitter) seems to be Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's record of their year embedded with an American platoon in Afghanistan, which is becoming known colloquially as "the real life Hurt Locker." Later in the week I'll be able to verify whether or not that buzz is on the mark, but on a tip from a friend, I skipped this morning's press screening of Restrepo to catch World Documentary competition title The Red Chapel, and man, I'm glad I did.
Like Restrepo, Chapel documents the infiltration of a previously off-limits battlefield - of sorts. Through means we are not made privy to, Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger sets up a cultural exchange through which he and two young Danish-Korean comedians, Simon and Jacob, are allowed to visit North Korea to spend two weeks planning a performance in collaboration with the state (represented by their English-speaking handler, Mrs. Pak) and a group of Pyonyang school kids. Brügger has convinced the North Koreans that the trio are a Kim Jong Il-sympathetic theater troop called The Red Chapel; in actuality, Simon and Jacob (who is developmentally disabled and refers to himself as "spastic") have no real act -- just some wigs, a whoopie cousin, and a suspiciously sincere acoustic cover of "Wonderwall" by Oasis. And Brügger is no theater producer, but a journalist determined to prove that "comedy is the soft spot of all dictatorships."

"What kind of country would allow a show as bad and bizarre as ours to be performed in a national theater in the capital city?" Brügger wonders via voiceover (which is omnipresent here in the best way, a channel for what the filmmaker really wants to say in the moment, but doesn't dare to for fear of wrecking the con). He determines one of two interests must be preventing the Koreans from kicking them out of the country (or worse): ingrained politeness, or the potential to use the Danes as pawns in their propaganda.

It doesn't seem a small thing that North Korea is, as Jacob observes, a state without handicapped people, where it has been alleged that children born with disabilities are sent to camps or used as guinea pigs in weapons tests. A film produced by a European featuring Koreans warmly welcoming Jacob, treating him as a native son instead of a freak (despite the fact that he wears both his disability and his Danishness with pride) could offer, at the very least, misdirection from such allegations. Of course, this doesn't stop the Korean theater director who works with the trio from demanding that Jacob act as though his disability is put on for the show. "It's psycho, because they're really nice to me," Jacob says. "But I can sense the contempt they have for me."
Jacob has motor and vocal difficulties, but he's not stupid, so he's well aware that he's being used as a pawn by both his hosts and the director of this film. He, Simon and Mads have a running sidechannel in Danish (this is safe, Mads concludes, because "even if the North Koreans were ever able to understand Danish, they'd never be able to understand spastic Danish"), and as their time in Pyongyong wears on, Jacob increasingly defies his director. At a "peace rally" marking the anniversary of the Korean war Jacob refuses to join the "Down with USA" salute, much to Mads' consternation. questioning Mads' motives right in front of the apparently unwitting Koreans. "Have you no moral scruples, Mads?" Jacob asks. Mads admits that in this case, he does not: if the North Korean state is the contemporary equivalent to Nazi Germany, then if he pulls off this cinematic spy mission, he might as well have smuggled an Arriflex into Auschwitz.
He does pull it off, in that the trio are never officially "found out," but he doesn't exactly stumble upon mass executions in progress. I've heard and read two key complaints about Chapel: that it lacks blatantly damning footage of Korean atrocities, and that the Danes should have tried harder to put on a truly subversive show. I think both claims fail to consider the gonzo grounds of the experiment.

I hate to bring another "real life version of Movie X" analogy into the world, but comparisons between Chapel and the work of Sacha Baron Cohen may be inevitable. If the smoking guns found in this invaded world are less over-the-top than the revelations of racism and homophobia that prop up Borat and Bruno, Chapel, though at its core a staged hidden camera stunt, also feels a lot less manipulated and manufactured. The show was an infiltration into an airtight closed state, and the film documenting it is an artifact that injects the initial comic shock of reality TV into a situation with actual global-politcal stakes. If that's not subversive, I'm not sure what is.
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