The Red Chapel is a thoughtful commentary on the slippery nature of truth in documentaries masquerading as a practical joke; it is a deeply depressing film with the elements of a comedy; it is brilliant while written with ham-fisted moralizing in mind. One of the most entertaining documentaries in recent years, The Red Chapel promises to swing wide the door on the most reclusive nation in the world, and does so while leaving it just as opaque. While the jokes are as dumb as they could possibly be, the underlying web of paradoxes elevates this film above any initial hopes the director might have had for a simple expose. In the era of the guerrilla documentary, this one hopes to bury it. I cannot say whether you will find this disappointing or liberating, but whatever your expectations are, they can be put to rest.
Director Mads Brugger embarks on a journey to North Korea with two Korean-born Danish comics with the intent to reveal the shell of a nation destroyed by a series of personality cults. The nemesis is Kim Jong-Il, one of the most entertainingly unhinged rulers on earth. Their goal is not easy, as their entire trip was monitored every moment by secret police (their guide is a woman with obvious military training) and their film is reviewed by censors. Every shot and word must be cautious, or they will at least lose their film, and at worst wind up in a death camp. The comedians, Simon and Jacob, have a gift for understated humor that exhibit a keen eye for the absurd. Of note, Jacob (as he describes himself) is a spastic. As Brugger points out, Koreans have difficulty understanding Danish, and have no hope of deciphering spastic Danish. The person in front of the camera the most is the insufferable Brugger, but this becomes poignant as time goes on. North Korea is sustained in its 50 year isolation by the universal and enforced adoration of the Dear Leader, the people kept in check by fear of war. The bulk of the film is shot in Pyongyang, a city of wide boulevards and manicured lawns that appears scrupulously clean. It helps that the city appears deserted except for people described by Brugger as extras in the portrayal of Jong-Il’s cult. The director narrates this all while pointing out every few minutes or so that the concentration camps are just a few feet away behind the facade in this evil place. His words – North Korea is evil. It is meant to be repetitive.
The Danish group is here on a pretext of cultural exchange – namely, Simon and Jacob are to put on a comedy show, as “dictatorships have a soft spot for comedy”. The show is based on the Princess and the Pea, a slapstick sketch, and fart jokes. It is hilariously awful, and it is a wonder they were not executed in rehearsals. Brugger asks “Why did they allow such a terrible show to go forward in the capital city?” Their constant escorts, along with the artistic director of Pyongyang’s theater, take an act with nothing funny in it and remove any jokes along with any content that could be Danish. The result is “even more bizarre and grotesque than our story lacking continuity or logic”. The only exchange of culture would be North Korean. Jacob, with the military escort hugging him the entire time (“This is creepy psycho”) is converted from an active part of the act to a passive gimp in a wheelchair. In effect, he is made into a propaganda tool for the government to convince visitors that handicapped people are not actually exterminated.
The comic and tragic delicately wind together until the entire affair burns with the inexorability of a tire fire. While the superficial ridiculousness of the situation makes for some hilarious exchanges, it is persistently sad in the inertia of the North Korean government and people. While the Danish comedians rehearse, clips are presented of various North Korean performers, mostly children, all playing instruments, dancing, or singing in such robotic precision that they are less a thing of entertainment and more a subject of despair. Every word spoken by the North Koreans are scripted. Every moment practiced. In this country, everything is theatre. The height of this farce is the annual tribute to the Korean War and the grand victory against the evil Western capitalist aggressors – this scene is probably one of the greatest (and worst) moments in cringe humor ever filmed.
The Red Chapel presents itself as a work of humor that purports to reveal the demonic nature of North Korea, and if it stuck to this plan, it would still have been excellent entertainment. That Mads Brugger and his comics then proceed to jump on a hand grenade and scuttle the entire affair both beggars belief and wins my admiration. Jacob nails this when he points out to his somewhat obstinate director that he is creating a work of propaganda as well, and is cavalier about using a spastic to highlight that idea that someone like Jacob would never have been allowed to survive in North Korea. Meanwhile, the North Koreans use him as propaganda to show how much they value their cripples. From this loose thread, Jacob and Simon unwind the entire affair and lay bare the very idea of documentaries and their ability to either show the truth or obscure it depending on one’s perspective. Jacob intones with great despair “Ideals that you believe in… in many situations just do not cut it.” Even such an obvious target as the hopelessly backward nation of North Korea is elusive, as it should be. To assume one has the high road is to be intellectually dishonest, even if it is only in service of cheap laughs.
When given the opportunity to embarrass their escort with a question, Jacob lets them off entirely. Not that he defends them in any way, because he is well aware of how much damage the Dear Leader has caused. He only admits that such a strange place, the history that created it, and the stalemate that has North Korea and its dictator dug in like an Alabama tick is… complicated. Not a groundbreaking idea, but it is at least more honest than pretty much any documentary that professes to be honest.
Red Chapel subverts the guerrilla documentary as fundamentally simple, being relatively useless for examining complex issues. It is a lesson that is good to keep in mind as the information we learn is increasingly packaged in the form of perspective-laden sound bites that poison true understanding. In service of this message is a relentlessly entertaining and surprisingly insightful film. The Red Chapel is probably the strangest film of the year, by equal turns hilarious and disheartening. It works to bring an audience primed to revel in the misfortune of others down to the same level.