The Red Chapel:
It just wouldn't feel like November if I weren't reviewing a bunch of comedic mockumentaries based on the idea of North Korea, so here we go again with The Red Chapel, the movie that dares ask the question ... well, it's more complicated than that. And yet the movie is also deceptively simple, for all of its multiple layers of content and subterfuge, but unlike its spiritual cousin, the excruciatingly subtle and obtuse The Juche Idea, Red Chapel has both a storyline and the power to bring the laughs, so if you're of the adventurous movie-watching ilk, you'll be rewarded like a lifelong collaborator.
Though North Korea itself is a bit of a joke; what with its leader's evil, dictatorial ways, and the demoralizing suffering of its citizens, it's still not a well filmmakers draw from too often for comedy purposes. That doesn't stop Danish director Mads Brügger from crafting this dizzying mind-bender of a movie. He, Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell, pose as communist sympathizers intent on bringing their new brand of troupe comedy to the citizens of North Korea. Somehow they're not only granted the opportunity, they're also allowed to film the experience. Simon and Jacob are Danes of South Korean descent - both only about 20-years-old - and Jacob, suffering from Cerebral Palsy, describes himself as a 'Spastic'. Layers and layers of subterfuge, discomfort and despair characterize the entire affair, as the troupe deceives itself, its hosts and possibly the audience. The trick wrings out extremely uncomfortable laughs and feelings of confusion in equal measure.
Combining the austere contempt-for-losers of Lars Von Trier with Borat-styled confrontational humor, and all covered with a layer of Werner Herzog's bemused ennui, Brügger's concoction is like little you've ever seen, and will have you questioning what's real, what's hilarious, and what's merely a human rights violation. Lead through the tightly controlled, orchestrated rigmarole that is the outsider's lot in Pyongyang, our trio relies on the guidance of their chaperone, Mrs. Pak. When not paying proper fealty to statues of the Great Leader, Jacob constantly questions the very nature of what they're doing. Luckily, his 'Spazz's' voice is difficult to understand, and impossible for the Koreans to translate - so he's able to say how he feels, a running commentary that only gets more complex and poignant as the movie goes on.
Meanwhile, try to enjoy the bizarre, nonsensical capering of the comedy routine itself, a routine designed to push the limits of North Korean propriety. It's funny only in how little sense it makes, a confounding fact for the Koreans, who nonetheless stoically play along while slowly usurping all control from Brügger. In the end, the show, and the experiences of The Red Chapel (the name adopted by the troupe) all come out perfectly - not at all as they were supposed to. Getting there is a profound, perplexing and ultimately quite emotionally affecting journey. Brügger comes to "expose the core of evilness in North Korea" - a pretty tall order, which he tackles ably, he also raises questions about how we treat handicapped people, and discovers some truths about deception. The Red Chapel moves intelligent comedy and documentary work in startling directions, but it doesn't forget to include a story you can follow, while hiding a huge, empathetic heart underneath its cool exterior.
The non-anamorphic 1.85:1 presentation comes letter and pillar-boxed at 4 X 3, which isn't all that appealing. Filmed by necessity with small digital cameras, the look is downscale. An overall gray cast fits the North Korean theme to a tee, but is also a bit emotionally draining, while often-pronounced digital grain (beware of dimly lit scenes) is noticeable throughout. Other minor compression issues such as aliasing appear as well. Though one would hope for a better look, the abstractly intellectual comedy and commentary on display shines through.
Digital Stereo Audio in Danish and English with English Subtitles is acceptable but certainly not flashy. It's all live audio, (except for Brügger's narration) so sometimes dialog competes with ambience or echoes. This is not of much concern, either, and subtitles are so frequent most of it is taken care of anyway.
No substantive extras save for other Lorber Films Trailers are offered.
Weird documentary director Mads Brügger brings his Danish/South Korean comedy troupe The Red Chapel into Pyongyang, North Korea. But whether there to bring comedy to a culturally stifled populace, (not at all) or to punk the Dear Leader - thus exposing the evils of North Korea ... I think - their incomprehensible act ultimately exposes a lot of other stuff too, from our attitudes towards differently-abled people (one of the comedians has cerebral palsy) to the ease with which one can destroy a person's psyche by touching their heart. If you thrive on uncomfortable comedy and multiple layers of meaning, then I can easily say that The Red Chapel is heartily Recommended. It's the best North Korean comedy I've seen this year.
- Kurt Dahlke
~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com