By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 27, 2010 at 3:21AM
In 2006, Danish journalist and filmmaker Mads Brügger journeyed to North Korea with two performers, Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell, to reveal the corruption of the country's censorship up close. The ruse was an elaborate combination of documentary exposé, performance art and advocacy: Jul, a noted Danish actor, and Nossell, a "spastic" stand-up comic whose speech impairments make his words difficult to decipher in any language, would perform a play for Korean locals approved by the government. Through covert messages, they would reveal a dangerous culture of repression. The result, assembled into the feature-length documentary "The Red Chapel," plays like slapstick espionage in non-fiction terms—an utterly, absurdly original portrait of totalitarianism that's at once unsettling and hilarious.
Titling his two-person theater troupe "The Red Chapel," Brügger borrows the name of a communist spy cell in Nazi Germany that also handily includes the color of socialism, which seems to satisfy the trio's North Korean hosts. Repurposed from a 2006 Danish television series of the same name, the movie contains two layers of commentary: The low-grade DV footage of Jul, Nossell and Brugger interacting with a variety of North Koreans assigned to guide their performance to completion, and Brügger's deadpan narration (not present in the original series), which shifts from mock innocence to sarcasm and dead-serious observations, all in service of criticizing "the terrible, irresistible beauty of a dictatorship" that dominates North Korean society." Nossell is his secret weapon, an odd man out whose very difference forces the Koreans to confront the country's suppression of handicapped citizens.
By alternately inhabiting the extremes of North Korean social mores and overtly spoofing them, "The Red Chapel" forms an ideal companion piece to Jim Finn's experimental mash-up of Korean propaganda in "The Juche Idea." Both movies make a compelling case for the country's inadvertent projection of itself—to borrow Brügger's description—as "a sanctuary for crazy people."
Unlike Finn's work, however, Brügger's routine often drops the performance to observe the grave situation surrounding it. The trio fixates on the tragic figure of Mrs. Pak, their sweet natured guide whose frozen smile hides the anguish caused by decades of governmental oppression. They must also mask their true feelings: Video specialists comb through their taped material, so they have to choose their words carefully, or resort to Danish when the boundaries enacted by officials during their rehearsal become too ridiculous. It's often hard to tell when they're messing around. As a result, "The Red Chapel" contains innumerable laughs that catch in your throat, and some that don't even get that far.
Due to its original television format, "The Red Chapel" sometimes suffers from a disconnected, episodic feel, but individual scenes convey a powerful dimension of activism. There are some basic contradictions between Brügger's manipulation of the North Koreans around him and the manipulative nature of the society itself, which makes the project inhabit a moral grey area at the root of all great satire. In the scenes leading up to the performance, Brügger reaches the outrageous performance art aspirations that Sacha Baron Cohen aims to achieve but can never quite reach without resorting to gags aimed at the lowest common denominator (the key to his commercial appeal).
Brügger also knows his target. "The main point is we should amuse the audiences," he's told, and the group takes that guidance to heart -- but for a different audience. Brugger's comic portrait intends to "expose the very core of the evil of North Korea" by smuggling his message into an absurd theatrical performance. Ironically following Kim Jong-il's textbook "The Art of Cinema," Brügger conveys a method for honest communication in a society essentially opposed to it.
To this end, he may succeed even more than the North Korean government in controlling the environment. Early on, he recognizes that his handlers view the fake theater troupe as an opportunity to dispel the notion that the country mistreats its handicapped citizens. "They know good propaganda when they see it," he observes -- but so does the filmmaker. The question of whose mission is carried out with more efficiency remains chillingly open-ended.
criticWIRE grade: A-