You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Red Chapel

Sufficiently intriguing to prevail over the messiness of the director's guerrilla-style tactics.

(English, Danish, Korean dialogue)

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.

The Red Chapel


Production: A Zentropa Rambuk presentation. (International sales: DR Intl. Sales, Copenhagen.) Produced by Peter Engel. Executive producers, Mette Hoffmann Meyer, Peter Aalbaek Jensen. Directed by Mads Bruegger.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Rene Johannsen; editor, Johannsen; sound, Jacob Garfield, Mikkel Sorensen; assistant director, Johan Stahl. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema -- competing), Jan. 29, 2010. (Also in 2009 Hot Docs Film Festival.) Running time: 87 MIN.

With: (English, Danish, Korean dialogue)(English, Danish, Korean dialogue)

More Film

  • dolittle-DRD_Tsr1Sht_1011_RGB_4_rgb-1

    Robert Downey Jr. Embarks on Perilous Journey in First 'Dolittle' Trailer (Watch)

    Robert Downey Jr. is setting sail with some furry friends in the first trailer for “Dolittle,” Universal Pictures’ reimagining of the classic story about a man who could speak to animals. “We have no choice but to embark on this perilous journey,” he says. Set to a rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” [...]

  • Parasite

    Bong Joon Ho's 'Parasite' Posts Powerful Opening in North America

    Bong Joon-Ho’s dark comedy “Parasite,” which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, has launched with a spectacular $376,264 at three U.S. theaters.  Neon opened “Parasite” at the The Landmark and Arclight Hollywood in Los Angeles and at the IFC Center in New York, where it broke the opening record set by 2014’s “Boyhood.” Its per-screen average [...]

  • Joker Movie

    'Joker' Dominates International Box Office With $124 Million

    “Joker” is showing impressive traction internationally with a second weekend of $123.7 million on 24,149 screens in 79 markets — a holdover decline of just 29%. Joaquin Phoenix’s psychological thriller has totaled $351.2 million outside North America after only 12 days in release. And with $192 million in domestic grosses, “Joker” has now topped $543 [...]

  • Joker

    'Joker' Remains Box Office Ruler With $55 Million

    Joaquin Phoenix is king of the North American box office once again as “Joker” scores an easy victory in its second weekend with $55 million at 4,374 sites. “Joker” dominated a trio of new entries with animated comedy “The Addams Family” leading the rest of pack with $30.3 million at 4,007 venues, topping forecasts. Will [...]

  • French director Bertrand Tavernier attends the

    Bertrand Tavernier on Coppola, Scorsese, Cayatte, Cinema’s Bright Future

    Veteran French director Bertrand Tavernier (“Round Midnight”) – president and director of the Institut Lumière and Lumière Festival, which he co-manages with Cannes’ Thierry Frémaux – has played a pivotal role in restoring classic French films and defending the importance of French directors, such as Claude Autant Lara, Henri Decoin and André Cayatte, who were [...]

  • 'Philharmonia'

    French Series 'Philharmonia' Sells to the U.K., the U.S. and Australia (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Philharmonia,” a French thriller series set in the world of a national orchestra, has been acquired in English-speaking territories from Lagardere Studios Distribution. “Philharmonia,” which was created and co-written by Marine Gacem, has been acquired by First Look Media’s Topic for SVOD rights in the U.S., and Walter Presents for the U.K. and Australia. “Philharmonia” [...]

  • US actor Donald Sutherland attends the

    Frances McDormand, Donald Sutherland Grace Lumière Festival Opening

    LYON  — The 11th Lumière Festival in Lyon, France, opened on Saturday with a celebration of its 10-year anniversary, a tribute to past Lumière Award recipients, and rousing standing ovations for Frances McDormand and Donald Sutherland, who are among the high-profile actors and filmmakers being feted this year. Dedicated to heritage cinema, the festival was [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content