Published May 13, 2009The worst nightmare of a satirical filmmaker is to find out that the joke is on them. And it's debatable whether Danish director Mads Brugger realizes this when he takes two Danish-Korean comedians, who were both raised in Denmark, and don't speak Korean, to perform in North Korea, with the intent of getting away with as much as they can, somehow subverting the totalitarian regime that, amongst its numerous crimes against humanity, certainly has no sense of humour.
Brugger figures he has a brilliant secret weapon in the literally spastic young comedian Jacob Nossell, whose speech impediment allows him to speak truth to power because no North Korean could ever understand his slurred Danish. And yet as the film progresses the (seemingly quite awful) slapstick pantomime show gets toned down and altered by a North Korean director who has his own ideas. And their kind-hearted, tragically sad translator Mrs. Pak starts coercing them into including propaganda statements into the performance.
Nossell starts second-guessing the whole enterprise and more questions quickly unfold. Is Brugger really standing up to "the man" or is he simply being used as a political prop himself? Who is stooging who? How much is he exploiting Nossell's handicap for his political grandstanding? And what role could performing "Wonderwall" on an acoustic guitar ever play in cross-cultural understanding between Danes and Koreans?
Brugger's film doesn't offer any resolutions but even if his motives and outcomes are debatable The Red Chapel is sufficiently strange and compelling enough for its peek behind the last patch of the Iron Curtain. And in a time when most lefty docs flaunt their agendas without shame, leaving little mental work for the audience, it's refreshing to see a film that doesn't filter out its moral contradictions.