Posted by: Harrison Milfeld | February 27, 2010

Review: ‘The Red Chapel’

The word “absurd” doesn’t even come close to describing filmmaker Mads Brügger’s film about the totalitarian society of North Korea. Brügger’s film, “The Red Chapel,” seems like a serious take on what goes on in the world of Kim Jong-il‘s nation, yet we the audience are treated to something different. No, ladies and gentlemen, what we have instead is Brügger guiding Danish-Korean comedians (talk about a mouthful) Jacob Nossell and Simon Jul through North Korea under the identity of a small theater troupe hoping for some cultural exchange.

After a few brief introductions, Brügger, Jacob and Simon seem ready to ridicule Kim Jong-il’s system. During the course of the film, the three are sheltered around the country’s capital, Pyongyang, as they prepare for a semi-impromptu theater performance. Brügger thinks comedy can be the soft spot of a dictatorship, which is prevalent throughout the first few frames. The crew’s antics are meant to not only make the audience think but also show the spirit of propaganda and the population within it.

One of the comedians, Jacob, uses a wheelchair, and he attracts a lot of attention. It doesn’t take long for the audience to soon discover that Jacob’s disability is looked down upon by the people of North Korea. This takes a toll on the young teenager as he learns that other disabled children are either killed at birth or moved to camps in the wilderness. Despite Jacob’s breakdown during a pivotal moment of the shoot, he entertains the viewer with his comments, which are heartfelt and darkly humorous.

In the spirit of undercover filmmaking, Brügger and his two comedians do their best to make sure officials do not discover their true motivation, even if Brügger decides only to depict the images that show the true face of North Korea, which he does to much avail. Korean officials had to approve all of the film’s content but never found out the truth behind the filmmakers’ intent. That alone gives “The Red Chapel” its surrealist qualities, which in return makes it a joy to watch. Had this been filmed in a different country, the audience would think of it as yet another mockumentary.

With “The Red Chapel,” Brügger paints a wonderfully edited film about a mysterious country that I’m sure many Americans aren’t willing to visit. When the director is not busy focusing on his two comedians’ antics, he is showcasing both visually and verbally the sociological state of the people of North Korea. In these pivotal scenes, Brügger, Jacob and Simon are introduced to the darker side of nation. When viewing these scenes, you try hard not to laugh at the fact that many of these citizens are part of one huge game. Again, it’s all part of the fun, and it adds to a whole different dimension of filmmaking.

Now, there are many scenes that encompass North Korea’s view of American imperialistic lifestyle, but Jacob and Simon are caught in a world that imposes a new world order. Once again, a lot of the hilarious moments are lost in translation between the two cultures of Dutch and Koreans.

The sessions between the pair’s rehearsals serve their purpose for the director to denounce totalitarianism. For example, as Simon is off rehearsing, Brügger takes Jacob to an anti-American rally, where they end up being nationally televised. The ensuing scene leads to funny exchanges between the director and Jacob as their two North Korean colleagues look on, not knowing that this all a ruse.

“The Red Chapel” is not like any ordinary documentary. It tickles one’s funny bone with its offbeat guerrilla humor, but it captures the haunting aspects of a country that the director feels has gone mad with power. “The Red Chapel” is sure to stimulate conversations on both its subject matter and characters, but it is a film one should discover on their own. Upon viewing, the word absurd never came close to describing this unique film – more like hilarious and frightening.

Other showings of “The Red Chapel”:

Sunday, Feb. 28 / 10 a.m. / The Chapel

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