Here's a documentary so astonishing that, for a time, I was convinced that I was being had -- that no sane filmmakers would ever attempt, much less pull off, anything this crazy. The Internet assures me that Mads Brügger and Johan Stahl's The Red Chapel, which won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, is very real indeed: that Brügger and a pair of comedian friends really did sneak into North Korea pretending to be a pro-Socialist vaudeville troupe there to engage in cultural exchange with local schoolchildren, that they really did get most of it on tape, and that they really did escape that fascist hellhole with life and limb intact. In the process, they've made a film equal parts horrifying, exhilarating and hilarious -- an epic prank on the world's most sinister dictatorship that makes Sacha Baron Cohen look like a shrinking violet in comparison.

I have an abiding fascination with North Korea, or, as it is more affectionately known, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). I think it was Christopher Hitchens who once wrote that the reason George Orwell's writing remains relevant today is that the word "Orwellian" is the only accurate descriptor of the North Korean regime -- its complete intolerance of independent thought, the elaborate false reality painstakingly constructed for its citizens, the personality cult of the Dear Leader at its center. Never mind that, as The Red Chapel informs us, the Dear Leader is personally responsible for starving countless of his own people.

The DPRK is, among other things, notoriously secretive, meticulously controlling the image it projects to the rest of the world, and taking pains to hide -- with the sort of appalling disingenuousness that is the hallmark of dictatorships -- what we know to be the realities of everyday life in the country. The Red Chapel, which takes place almost entirely in the country's relatively maintained cities, doesn't try to get at the most shocking of those realities: the incredible poverty, the starvation, the labor camps to which the "untrustworthy" are sent. But it does give us an astonishing glimpse into a world that only seems possible in dystopian fiction; a world of brainwashed sycophants literally worshipping at the altar of the Dear Leader, living out a facially ridiculous fantasy built for them by what may be the most evil government in the history of civilization.

The most fascinating character in the film may be Mrs. Pak, the motherly, slightly creepy government functionary assigned to be the caretaker for Bruger and the two young Danish-Koreans who make up the "comedy troupe" that Bruger "directs." There is nothing to suggest that she is a bad or malevolent person. Her belief in the fundamental greatness of her country and her government, and in the "values" of unity and togetherness used to keep North Koreans in line, is wholehearted and pure. She can't talk about the Dear Leader without being emotionally overcome. Aside from the mentally ill, I've never seen a human being who exists so completely in an alternate universe. It's terrifying.

The comedians, meanwhile -- the portly, slightly goofy-looking Simon Jul Jørgensen, and Jacob Nossell, who is spastic and mildly handicapped -- rehearse for their show, which the North Koreans promptly commandeer and fashion into nationalist propaganda. ("One heart! One mind! One Korea!" Simon is forced to recite, while Jacob is reduced to making grunts and whistles in his wheelchair.) Because their lives are quite literally in danger, our heroes largely have to cooperate, but they do get in a couple of shockingly subversive jabs, like their quest to get Korean schoolchildren to join them in a rendition of "Wonderwall."

Logistically, The Red Chapel is astonishing. Because the North Koreans screened the footage they shot, they needed to be careful not to say anything out-of-line. The only exception to this is Jacob, who could speak freely because his stilted English and Danish was almost impossible to understand. This leads to scenes that resemble something out of a spy film, with Mads and Simon trying their best to make it seem like their conversation with Jacob is something other than what it actually is. In context, it's heart-pounding stuff.

The Red Chapel
peters out slightly in the final minutes, though it's hard to blame the filmmakers or the characters: they needed to get the hell out of there. The movie brings to life what I've only read about in books and seen in photos. It's invaluable.
categories Cinematical