A documentary by Mads Brügger. In Danish, Korean, and English with English subtitles. Unrated. Plays Thursday, December 1, at the European Union Film Festival, Pacific Cinémathèque, 8:20 p.m.
Danish TV writer and producer Mads Brügger got the idea to waltz into North Korea under false pretences (presenting corny vaudeville-style performances as some kind of “cultural exchange” while exposing the regime’s evil workings) about a half-dozen years ago. The result of his two-week trip with South Korea–born “comedians” Simon Jul Jørgensen and Jacob Nossell (both raised in Denmark since infancy) became a 2006 television series.
With the help of Lars von Trier’s Zentropa Productions, Brügger released a trimmed-down version of the series as a feature documentary, The Red Chapel, which went on to win last year’s Sundance Festival grand jury prize for documentary in the world-cinema category.
Besides wondering how this flawed film ever beat out the U.K.-Cambodia coproduction Enemies of the People at Sundance, one must ponder why Denmark submitted this to the EUFF as representative of that country’s best work as opposed to Blood in the Mobile (which screened as part of this year’s Amnesty International Film Festival)?
Von Trier’s influence? Ah, well.
It would be easy to dismiss Brügger as a Sacha Baron Cohen wannabe, but it wouldn’t be fair. The Red Chapel does have an intriguing premise in its favour—that and the realization that very few foreign film teams have shot in North Korea and screened the results worldwide. The fact that only the footage approved by Dear Leader Kim Jong-il’s minions made it out of the country only meant that Brügger and friends had to be creative in their use of language and set-up.
And Borat never had to put up with state-supplied “advisors” who rewrote his material, rearranged stage performances, and ordered participation in official ceremonies.
With those facts in mind, and some mental extrapolation regarding the comedy of official oppression that unfolds within the doc’s 88 minutes, there are some interesting moments here.
Although it is obvious that Brügger’s forays into Pyongyang were severely curtailed, if not 100-percent controlled, and always supervised by stoney-faced minders (one of whom, “Mrs. Pak”, seems to develop a genuine—and at the same time touching and off-putting—affection for 19-year-old Nossell, who has cerebral palsy and is cute as a bug), his camera is able to show enough to raise questions.
Like, where are all the people? For the largest city in North Korea, Pyongyang’s parks and monuments seem remarkably deserted. And where are all the men? Women seem to vastly outnumber them, and male children are virtually nonexistent. The state shows off robotic young girls (often with full makeup) singing, dancing, and exercising at the drop of a clipboard, but young boys are kept under wraps. Or somewhere else.
And the physically disadvantaged are, disconcertingly, nonexistent. Nossell, who is mostly confined to a wheelchair, laments at one point how he can feel that the North Koreans with whom he must interact all regard him “with contempt”. (Near the film’s end, he mentions to Mrs. Pak how he would like to meet some “handicapped people” and the bewildered look on her face is more than a bit unsettling, even for a police-state lackey.)
The vaudevillean interludes are bizarre, to say the least: unfunny (deliberately so, according to Brügger), unprofessional, and reflecting the ability level of your average boy-scout troop.
But Brügger seems to have had his mind made up about what he was going to find in North Korea before he stepped off the plane, and the government flunkies, if not really on top of his game, certainly seem to have the director pegged as someone whose work is of limited worth, and influence.
Brügger also appears to run roughshod over his comedic co-conspirators when they realize things aren’t going quite how they’d envisioned.
Overall, the film has the look of a good idea that didn’t quite come together, and the rather obvious manipulative editing job performed on The Red Chapel seems done more in the service of salvaging something presentable than presenting something meaningful.