Last night I saw an astonishing film. The Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA have been presenting New Directors New Films 2010 for the last two weeks. I just made it to the last screening in this series of The Red Chapel. (the New Directors New Films 2010 series ends today, but be on the look out for The Red Chapel as a part of other series and festivals. It just showed at SXSW). The Red Chapel was part farce, part social and political commentary, part thriller and more. The filmmakers, Mads Brügger and Johan Stahl and their comedian troupe consisting of two Danish-Korean men, Simon Jul Jørgensen, and Jacob Nossell were actually granted admittance into the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or a.k.a. North Korea). They come to NPRK under the guise that their comedy act will be performing as part of a cultural exchange that ends up being nothing but, following the North Korean assigned director's "notes". Their act, purposely terrible and preposterous to begin wit, gets re-directed into a piece of DPRK propaganda.
The bizarre thing isn't even getting welcomed in the country or the weird act they present or the even weirder "comedy" performance that gets re-imagined, but it's the fact that they were able to film all of this. We are told by Mads Brügger, one of the filmmakers and also posed director of the troupe, that the North Korean government screens every tape they've recorded every night while they sleep.
The film is nararrated by Mads Brügger as they are given guided tours of the capital city of Pyongyang, during their rehearsal process and at their hotel. The city itself looks desolate. Although we don't see a lot of the street, we do see city scape views and glimpses as they travel in a van. It appears to be an abandon metropolis and Mr. Brügger explains that only the most trusted in the country are allowed to live in the capital city. When Jacob asks where the stores are, Mads tells him, they exist but there is no advertising or signs for them. Advertising isn't deemed necessary. Odd to imagine, for us westerners who live in a free market system, a world without signage, isn't it? It is a unique look inside a socialist republic government.
The most shocking moments in the film come when Mr. Brügger and Mr. Nossell are taken to a rally (Mr. Jørgensen is ill and stays at the hotel). The rally is made up of thousands of North Koreans chanting "Down with American Imperialists" among other catchy slogans. The rally gatherers are there to commemorate the day of the apparent American invasion of 1950, a day that is a re-imagined history by the North Koreans. Everyone at the rally pumps their fist, and out of fear for seeming insincere, Mads joins in and encourages Jacob to do the same, but he refuses in an emotional fit of rebellion. They argue in danish, while their Korean guides push Jacob (who has a mild disability and is in a wheelchair) and Mads into the actual march. It even looks like their leading a group at one point. Mads chanting and pumping his fist and Jacob refusing to do so. They later see themselves, quite clearly in the middle of a massive march on the DPRK national television. It's a chilling moment. It's hard to believe it actually happened.
It is a complex film full of rich characters, from Jacob's emotional pleas to Mads to stop the lying, that he can't pretend anymore, to Mrs. Pak, the troupes guide who is oddly emotional over their "Dear Leader" and Jacob, who she claims is like a son to her just hours after meeting. It is disturbing at moments and played for laughs, effectively, at others. You can't help wonder what Mrs. Pak has been through that we'll never know. The documentary is a fascinating commentary on dictatorship and what that structure does to the people and culture it rules.
The Red Chapel is full of savvy wit, emotion and complexity. You may think you don't want to see a film about the scary North Korea but just wait, this one is something like you'd never seen. It's the real thing.