A rare look inside the fortress-like walls of North Korea proves sufficiently intriguing to prevail over the messiness of director Mads Bruegger’s guerrilla-style tactics in “The Red Chapel,” a fascinating but less-subversive-than-advertised piece of stunt filmmaking. Documenting his visit with two Danish-Korean comedians hoping to put on a show, Bruegger launches a sneak attack on what he calls “the most heartless and brutal totalitarian state ever created,” yet his vigorous condemnations aren’t always entirely backed up by what he uncovers. Sundance’s World Cinema grand jury prize should raise the fest profile for “Chapel,” also available in a 52-minute broadcast version.
Narrating in almost nonstop voiceover (helpfully accompanied by subtitles for almost all dialogue, including English), Danish journalist Bruegger lays the groundwork for a “Borat”-style ambush. Operating under the notion that “comedy is the soft spot of all dictatorships,” Bruegger arrives in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang with a theater troupe consisting of two Korean expats: Simon Jul, a portly comedian, and Jacob Nossell, a self-described “spastic” whose words are translated for the Korean authorities (often deceptively) by Bruegger.
The three visitors are received by an English-speaking official guide, Mrs. Pak, whose smiling exterior masks a steely personality and firmness of will, and occasionally gives way to overwhelmed displays of “national emotion” whenever Kim Jong-il, aka “the Dear Leader,” is invoked. As Jul and Nossell rehearse their amateurish and stultifyingly unfunny act, which is greeted with hesitant half-smiles and bemused looks by those assembled, Mrs. Pak and theater director Jong Se-jin set to work overhauling the production, stripping it of all Danish references and introducing elements that subtly further their own agenda.
Bruegger acknowledges at the outset that Korean officials monitored all of the footage in “The Red Chapel” (the title is both the theater group’s moniker and the name of a communist spy cell that operated in Nazi Germany), defusing the possibility of anything truly shocking occurring onscreen. He also admits that, while the state has an obvious interest in exploiting their visit for propaganda purposes, he’s unabashedly making a propaganda movie of his own.
Bruegger isn’t above imputing bizarre historical motives to his subjects; Mrs. Pak’s smothering affection for Nossell, he suggests, is an attempt to gloss over the national practice of killing babies with handicaps or defects. The pic is often illuminating as a crash course in North Korean history, as Bruegger rattles off the various atrocities committed under Kim’s regime. Yet while “The Red Chapel” is intrinsically interesting for its picture of a hermetically sealed dictatorship whose 33 million inhabitants live in a constant state of fear and oppression (emphasized by grim exterior shots of Pyongyang), there’s little in the film that adds specifically to an outsider’s understanding of the situation. Bruegger seems not just unable to engage with the locals, but almost uninterested.
As the helmer continues to put wild spins on his deception and take further risks, soft-hearted Nossell — who’s more conflicted about the experiment, in part due to his growing sense of acceptance by the Korean people — emerges as the film’s conscience. The mounting tension between Bruegger and Nossell culminates in the pic’s dramatic and satiric high point at an anti-U.S. parade, in a sequence that tingles with danger and absurdity. No such audacious laughs are in the offing at the eventual comedy performance (unless getting North Koreans to sing along to “Hey Jude” strikes one as the height of hilarity).
Tech credits are appropriately rough, with agile handheld camerawork and editing, both by Rene Johannsen.