Sundance Review: The Red Chapel

When you hear the premise of this one its hard not to raise an eyebrow at the sheer amount of balls evidently needed to even attempt to pull this film off.

Danish journalist Mads Brugger has decided to take a Danish comedy group to North Korea under the guise of a cultural exchange. His plan is to use the Korean-born duo to gain access into the heart of North Korea and expose aspects of the dictatorship never seen before. Add to this that one of the comedy duo, Jacob, is disabled and a self-proclaimed ‘spastic’ and you know you are going to see something unusual at the very least.

The North Koreans take the bait, obviously believing this to be an opportunity for good PR, which proves to be a very misguided judgement as Mads manages to outwit their restrictions at every turn. As much as the film uncovers aspects of North Korean culture and mentality not regularly seen it is also a great insight into the dynamic between the three Danes which, at times, is as difficult ethically as the Korean reaction itself.

In addition to this the film is hilarious, Jacob and his straight man counterpart Simon are geniunely funny not only when performing their bizarre slapstick show, but also in their reactions and comments throughout. The most incredible aspect of their setup is that Jacob is the only person who can speak freely. All tapes were taken at night by the North Koreans to ensure that filming maintained a view of Korea they were happy with, however they cannot interpret Jacob whatsoever and so he speaks his mind continually on camera. It is a great way of showing how Mads has to change the two comedians’ comments to ensure the Koreans don’t suspect the truth, but also it helps to explain the difficulties Jacob is going through as the trip goes on.

Mads’ commentary is laced with sarcasm and intentional factual errors and you can’t help but see a slight Werner Herzog comparison, but with a comedic slant. The other main character in the story is Mrs Pak who has been assigned by the government to look after the trio. Mrs Pak is a bizarre contradiction of a character, who is taken with Jacob in a highly disturbing manner, and who mentions at one point that she feels more for him than her own son. Watching her burst into tears at the mere mention of patriotism towards North Korea is an insight in itself.

You are challenged throughout as to whether the exploitation of Jacob’s disability by Mads or the North Korean’s is worse with the Koreans constantly fawning over Jacob as a PR tool but also out of extreme pity, and Mads knowing the extent of the power this creates in terms of the film. Mads constantly struggles with maintaining his intentions and the two young comedians try to continue helping Mads without losing too much dignity.

The film concludes with their final performance which involves numerous scary children, a rendition of Wonderwall and a comedic troupe affected by the journey in ways they never expected. A very ambitious film that seems to pull off the impossible. Highly recommended viewing.