The Red Chapel (2010 Melbourne International Film Festival)
This hilarious political documentary follows a trio of supposed performance artists who travel to North Korea to put on a deliberately terrible comedy show, only to have the Koreans reconstruct it from the ground up and use it for political purposes. Aviator-clad Danish director Mads Brügger observes early on that just as the North Koreans are using the show for propaganda, so too is he, kicking off round #1 of a fascinatingly muddled game of ethics and conscience.
Brügger’s team consists of himself and two Danish-Koreans. One of them is Jacob, a physically disabled self-proclaimed “spastic” comedian who is very much in on the game. The trio subtly take the piss out of their hosts, including the devoutly nationalistic Mrs. Pak, who seems intent to prove that North Korea doesn’t discriminate against people with disabilities, which it almost certainly does. They are in the country not to put on a good show but to get an inside glimpse of the draconian system in play.
All footage in The Red Chapel was approved by North Korean censors, so the film relies on Brügger’s pointed voice over for its political substance. His commentary – cutting, sassy and funny – likens North Korea to Nazi Germany, with talk of death camps, genocide and Orwellian government. He lacks any evidence to support these claims; one assumes this isn’t because of a lack of journalistic scruples but because of the mysteries of North Korea – the knowledge that nobody in the western world knows what goes on behind the proverbial closed doors in this strange, subservient nation. However it is a vice nonetheless.
The film’s greatest asset is its organically formed character study of Jacob, a smart and observant man constrained – at least in the eyes of others – by his physical disability and speech impediments.
Is Brügger exploiting Jacob, just as he is exploiting the North Koreans? And is either kind of exploitation morally justifiable? The director doesn’t shy away from such questions; in fact he raises them himself. It is one of the many strengths of this sharp and darkly amusing travelogue-with-a-twist.