Poking Fun at North Korea, Suffering the Consequences

One thing that’s often missing from investigative documentary and satire–from Michael Moore to Sasha Baron Cohen–is a sense of vulnerability on the part of the filmmaker. The artist is taking on some big bad company or some giant malevolent ideology, and yet the Quixotic individuals seem to have no fear, never seem to be in danger, and don’t seem personally threatened by the situation. In The Red Chapel, filmmaker Mads Brugger travels with two Koren-born Danish comedians Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell) to North Korea, under the pretext that they will perform a pro-socialist play, celebrating the role of Kim Jong Il as the anti-imperialist hero he makes himself out to be. Traveling to one of the most isolated countries in the world, making fun of one of the most deadly regimes in history, takes courage and passion, but it should also be terrifying. What elevates The Red Chapel beyond intelligent political satire to moving personal investigation is the complexity of emotions and ideas the three intrepid satirists experience.

Brugger seems to be the best informed about the heinous North Korean government, and often spurs his two compatriots on by mentioning Kim Jong Il’s oppressive treatment of the populace through a culture of spying and brainwashing, through brutal work camps and (essentially) forced starvation. But because of his awareness, Brugger is also the most fearful of the regime, and therefore the most obedient. When their hostess asks them to salute a military parade, Brugger alone obliges.

The two Korean-born comedians, on the other hand, are both more boldly out-spoken and more personally tormented. When shown a pro-government demonstration by kindergarten kids, they can barely contain their anguish. When told to change their theater performance, they try to resist. They want to speak out, but are awash in a complex set of conflicting feelings: they are opposed to the government, but feel badly for their obsequious hostess; they proudly consider themselves Danish, now, and come from South Korea, but are clearly awe-struck at the possibility of setting foot back in their homeland, solemnly walking around a negotiating table placed on the contentious border. The artists’ inner turmoil, represented in The Red Chapel, allows for a political discourse that examines personal difficulties and intricacies of the situation, accounting for the fact that even an evil empire consists of individual human beings.

By turns hilarious and harrowing, absurd and insightful, I’m sure hoping that we can bring The Red Chapel to Rooftop this summer.