Sundance Review: 'The Red Chapel'
Danish director Mads Brugger failed to expose the truth about North Korea, so he added a voice-over
[Description and review of "The Red Chapel" after the break...]
In the doc, Danish filmmaker Brugger and a pair of Danish-Korean comedians earn admission to travel to North Korea under the guise of performing a variety show for the purposes of cultural exchange. Brugger's goal is to expose the evil underbelly of North Korean repression and even when very little happens to reenforce his original thesis, he keeps pushing the argument with a voiceover that rarely has any connection to the things we're seeing on the screen.
To be fair, the very repression Brugger hopes to expose prevents him from securing any sort of candid footage of the group's North Korean hosts. Every day, the filmmakers had to turn in their footage to the North Korean state police and it was subsequently vetted and returned without any hints of potential incrimination. The North Koreans featured in the documentary are officious and more than a little cult-y when it comes to their Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, but in the footage leftover in the documentary, they aren't any more or less zealous than any passionate tourguides showing their country to a band of outsiders.
Left without that kind of truly damning footage, Brugger has to extrapolate. Their show is a disaster when they arrive, but at least it contains Danish content. A North Korean director promptly takes over the show and strips it of its specificity, lead Brugger to rant about how the cultural exchange he'd imagined was apparently only one-sided. The flaws in his logic are two-fold: One, there's little doubt that the North Korean director makes the show better and saves the two performers from embarrassment, crafting a new show that's specifically tailored for the audience they're going to play to. Secondly, Brugger's biggest complaint is that his Korean hosts won't let his two performers sing Oasis' "Wonderwall," which hardly counts as authentic Danish culture in my book. If anything in Brugger's original plan had been even slightly subversive, I might have shared his outrage, but his idea of subversion was to hang his two stars out to dry with lame material and no real structure.
There's very little indication that Brugger is a good theatrical director and even less indication that he's a thoughtful political critic. The film's message is all conveyed via voiceover and Brugger just makes generic references to "camps" and to "genocide" and compares his host nation to Nazi Germany, but nothing he says has even an iota of specificity and nothing he says is even slightly connected to the journey that he's taking.
Basically, Brugger is stubborn and when he declares "By now, my understanding of the North Korean mentality was second to none," he isn't being ironic. He honestly does snap psychological readings of every North Korean he meets, young and old, and then gives that unsubstantiated reading as a fact in the voice-over. They go to a North Korean school, for example, and he laments the exploitation of the children and says that their smiles for the camera are a sign of fear, even though performing private school children tend to be creepy, disturbing and forced regardless of what nation they happen to be coming from. While I don't doubt that these kids are brainwashed within an inch of their lives and that other school conditions are far less presentable, Brugger has no footage or facts to support anything he says throughout the entire movie.
There's also something genuinely icky about the way Brugger treats his two entertainers. While Simon is smart, gregarious and very much in control of the way he's being presented in the movie, Jacob is a self-described "spastic" (muscular dystrophy would be my guess) and he seems to have only been brought along because Brugger read somewhere that handicapped children are mistreated (or left to die) in North Korea. Since the North Koreans use Jacob as a chance to show how open and accepting they can be, the only person pushing Jacob and showcasing his differently-abled status is Brugger, who forces the teen into several circumstances seemingly against his will.
"The Red Chapel" has moments of interest simply because Pyongyang is an other-wordly city rarely seen by Western eyes. It comes across as a chilly urban wasteland, though Brugger wants to call it a "city of sycophants and informers," again without any anecdotal verification or corroboration. Brugger also gets interesting access to a city holiday celebrating the start of the Korean War, decrying American imperialism, but his decision to march with a parade of goose-stepping soldiers isn't even marginally subversive, nor is his attempt to get Jacob to join in their disturbing fist-thrusting salutes.
The problem is that Brugger is probably correct in everything he claims about North Korea, he just doesn't have the footage or the narrative to corroborate the thesis he's trying to make. Instead, there's sterile censored footage and angry, political voiceover and the two never join up for a second, nor does the film reach the grand conclusion Brugger admits he hoped for. Sometimes a movie just doesn't come together the way you hoped, but under those circumstances you have to either adapt to the story you can tell or you chalk the failure up to poor luck and move on. Heck, I'd have also loved to see the movie Brugger obviously wanted to make, but the movie he really did make is a dud.
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