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.

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