Denmark launches an all-out attack on North Korea in this has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed documentary that ventures into territory somewhere between Michael Moore and Borat. Bankrolled by Lars von Trier’s Zentropa production company, the aptly named Mads Brügger travels to Pyongyang on a feigned mission of cultural exchange, bringing a camera crew and the Danish-Korean slapstick-comedy team Red Chapel.
The duo consists of Simon, who aims to perform an acoustic rendition of Oasis’s “Wonderwall” accompanied by a choir of Korean schoolgirls, and Jacob, a self-described “spastic” whose mangled speech is incomprehensible to the minders assigned to “assist” the troupe. And while the duped hosts get more than they bargain for—a lot more—the Danish visitors find things aren’t as ethically clear-cut as they’d prefer them to be. [Synopsis courtesy of New Directors/New Films]
Editor’s Note: This is one interview in a series profiling directors whose films are screening at the 2010 New Directors/New Films Festival.
“The Red Chapel“
Director: Mads Brugger
Executive producers: Mette Hoffmann Meyer, Peter Aalbaek Jensen
Producer: Peter Engel
Director of photography: Rene Johannsen
Editor: Rene Johannsen
Director Mads Brugger on filmmaking and what led him to this documentary…
My name is Mads Brügger. When I was a child I looked exactly like Alfred E. Neumann, Mad Magazine’s mascot. My approach to filmmaking comes from having worked as a journalist, and I have never been formally trained as a film director.
Having worked with role-play in my previous film “Danes for Bush” (2004), where another guy and I drive around the U.S. pretending to be Danish neo-conservatives working for the re-election of George W. Bush under the slogan “save us from old Europe,” I started looking for a place in the world where role-play and deliberate lying actually is morally defendable and a natural part of life. I figured it had to be a dictatorship of some sort, and then I stumbled upon North Korea, which I did not now much about. But once I started reading about the place, I became obsessed with North Korea, which I consider to be the most repressive and sophisticated dictatorship in the history of mankind. Having dealt with communists before, I knew that they love “cultural exchange;” it makes them all misty-eyed, so I knew it would have to be some sort of cultural exchange project I would have to offer them as a bait. I also knew I should use comedy, because most dictators are laughable, especially Kim Jong-Il. Then I heard about a handicapped Danish-Korean stand up comedian who performs in a comedy club in Copenhagen, and from here the film more or less made itself – apart from the fact that staying in North Korea was a very paranoid, nerve-wracking, and demanding experience.
Basically its commedia del arte. I am the evil white clown and Jacob and Simon – the Laurel and Hardy of Danish-Korean comedians – are the two august clowns. I knew beforehand it would be a film about theater, manipulation, and propaganda on a staggering amount of different levels. If North Korea documentaries are a genre of its own, this is really some special stuff. It’s a film about how a total dictatorships warps and destroys human emotions. It’s also a film about North Korea which has its fun moments, which is very important to me. Normally films about North Korea mean that you will constantly hear the trumpets of the apocalypse in the background.
Brugger on the challenges he faced in bringing his film to the screen…
One challenge was getting the North Koreans to accept my offer, and to collaborate with me. But the most difficult was convincing Jacob’s parents that they should allow me to bring Jacob to North Korea. They have been taking care of their handicapped adopted son for 18 years, and then suddenly some weird red-haired freak shows up and says he wants to bring their boy to the most evil place on the planet. It still amazes me that they said yes, but today I understand it’s because they knew that Jacob is tough – as it turned out, he was the strongest of us all. Another challenge was that we had to give the North Koreans all of our footage for screening and control every day. When we were sleeping they were going through our material, so we had to be very careful not to say anything which could offend them while shooting. The only one who could speak his mind freely was Jacob, because nobody understands what he says.
And on his inspirations and future projects…
An inspiration is Todd Solondz’s film “Palindromes.” I really appreciate the humor which is in his films, and the Christian multi-handicapped band in Mama Sunshine’s house of horrors is really the stuff which The Red Chapel comedy duo is made of.
I don’t like talking about future projects, because then I will not be doing them. Talking about your projects too much takes away the incentive to get the job done – and I want to get the job done.