Wednesday, March 17, 2010

SXSW 2010 Film Review: The Red Chapel

Documentary comedy The Red Chapel contains some of the bravest comedy I have ever seen. Forget Sacha Baron Cohen, he only tackled prejudice, whereas The Red Chapel infiltrates North Korea, one of the most oppressive dictatorships in the world, and mocks its pretensions in the faces of the secret police. No wonder it won “Best Foreign Documentary” at Sundance.

The group gets into North Korea on the pretext of being a socialist comedy troupe called The Red Chapel, who have come to the country as part of a Dutch cultural exchange program. The group is eclectic to say the least. The brainchild and narrator of the experiment is an unscrupulous journalist, willing to utter any lie and parrot North Korean propaganda to get the shots he wants. The comedy duo following him consists of two Danish-Koreans, one a tattooed but sweet man, the other a self-described “spastic,” who has a developmental disability and a terrible speech impediment. One wonders how these artists agreed to this mission.

Freshly landed in Korea, the Danish troop is introduced to their communist minder, Ms. Pak, who proves to be the most interesting character in the film. Though she seems motherly and polite, Ms. Pak is a highly trained communist official, possibly a member of the secret police, and is utterly convinced of Korean superiority. Within minutes of deplaning, she scolds the comedians for not knowing the Korean language, and insists on teaching them to count from one to ten. They find this amusing, and repeat after her. Each time they finish, she smiles and says, “Again.” On the sixth repetition, they give up, realizing that they are being drilled instead of taught. The next morning, she takes them to get tailored North Korean military uniforms, exactly the type worn by the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-ill. The culture wars continue to the performance itself, when the Koreans revitalize the (admittedly, terrible) Danish comedy show, replacing all Danish elements with ones that will be “better” and more geared toward North Korean tastes. The most grotesque change involves confining the disabled performer to a wheelchair which he is in no need of, and telling him that he must pretend that he is an able-bodied actor playing a disabled person. This is particularly revolting when one realizes that North Korea has been accused of killing disabled children at birth, and sending persons who develop physical handicaps to work camps.

One wonders while watching if the changes are meant to make the show more accessible to Korean audiences, killing any thought of cultural exchange, or make performance terrible, reinforcing the superiority and professionalism of the North Korean girls’ choir serving as backup singers.

The Red Chapel makes little pretence of being a fair documentary, and frequently shades into propaganda itself. The director/narrator defends these tactics as pitting one piece of propaganda against another, and as a viewer I find myself agreeing with that statement more often than not. To be fair, the film doesn’t show anything that the North Korean propaganda machine doesn’t want an audience to see (the secret police watched the tapes daily) and the fact that the socialist perversity staged for the camera is the best face North Korea can show proves the film’s thesis that North Korea is a dictator’s puppet show. For all the cheap shots pulled, the film doesn’t hit below the belt—it never tells us that the founder of the country, Kim Ill-sung, is kept in a glass casket like Snow White, labeled with a sign reading “Our Leader For Eternity.” Nor does it mention that state propaganda occasionally suggests that Kim Jong-ill controls the weather. Instead, the director lets the country speak for itself: the near-empty streets of Pyongyang, the aggressive military parades, the deliberate misinterpretation of history, and the creepy groupthink mentality of the schoolchildren.

This all makes The Red Chapel sound like a bleak film, and it is, but that didn’t stop me from laughing throughout the entire running time. Everyone in this film is funny, the devious director, the over-earnest Ms. Pak, and the “spastic” Jacob, whose speech impediment is so thick that he’s the only one who can speak his mind without fear of blowing their cover.

The only downside to the project is the camera work, which is frequently shaky and sometimes pans fast enough to make the audience motion sick. Likewise, the subtitles are sub-par for a movie this good, blocky and far too high up on the screen. Still, these are small issues that didn’t detract much from my overall enjoyment of the film.

I dare not reveal how far their charade goes, and where it leads them, but it is fair to say that if I were a member of The Red Chapel theater troupe, I’d have kissed the ground after landing back in the Netherlands.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Film Review Flashback to SXSW 2009: BLACK

This review was originally posted following SXSW 2009. Since the film has now been released for pre-order to the U.S. market, I decided to re-post the review in order to drum up interest and prime the pump for the SXSW 2010 reviews I will post later this week.

Black is a French nouveau Blaxploitation heist film, in which a group of Parisian North Africans pull a bank heist in Dakar and end up embroiled in a gang war that involves con men, a Russian Spetsnaz Colonel, a shaman, American military contractors, giant machete-wielding wrestlers, a femme fatale from Interpol, a witch, and an arms dealer who's mutating into a snake. If that list didn’t excite you, this isn’t your movie.

The current racial tension in France is roughly analogous to that of 1970s America, so it makes sense that French directors are becoming attracted to the strong, virile, anti-establishment heroes of the American Blaxploitation era (think Shaft or ) as both artistically interesting and commercially bankable. To his credit, director Pierre Laffargue has no qualms about hijacking the genre and running with it as far as it can go, including bloody bank heists, sexy cast members, kung fu, big guns, nasty white villains, and a soundtrack that’s unapologetically funky. The end result is dizzying, violent and leaves the viewer with a lunatic grin.

The best thing about Black is MC Jean Gab’1 (District B-13, District 13: Ultimatum), the French rapper who portrays the titular character. MC Jean keeps the film grounded with his wicked smile, tough-but-handsome face and precisely delivered one-liners. (The best of which has him pulling grenades from a glove compartment and growling, “If they want Beirut, I’ll give them Beirut!”) The man’s got talent, which only shines all the more in a film where every actor consciously and consistently goes over the top. The manic Russian Colonel is especially fun to watch. In this era of “realistic” depictions of Batman and James Bond, it’s nice to see a villain that jumps out of hiding with a grin on his face and shouts, “Ah ha!” The Interpol agent played by Carole Karemera is the closest thing to subtlety in the movie, which isn't saying much, but she plays her part competently... or maybe Ms. Karemera is just really beautiful—it’s hard to tell when she’s speaking in such dreamy French. The action scenes aren’t anything we’ve never seen before, but they’re shot with an urgency and personality that makes them breathless. The soundtrack, as noted, is delicious ‘70s retro, beginning with a funk remix of the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The only fly in the ointment is a subplot where the leads begin to, literally, morph into animals. If you feel uncomfortable seeing urbane, modern characters with African ancestry transformed into jungle beasts via tribal magic, rest assured that you’re not the only one. At least that's what the nervous laughter in the theater told me. The French have a different standard of what’s racially appropriate than the United States, where this wouldn't fly. It doesn’t spoil the film, but for a few crucial minutes, this guilty pleasure offers up more guilt than pleasure.

Black was by far the most bizarre film experience I had at SXSW this year, which is really saying something, since I also saw a short film about a cupcake sailing to an island of vegetables. Black is easily worth a rent, if only for its sheer madcap zaniness.