Sketchy Comedy

Steven Erickson on The Red Chapel

Mads Brügger, The Red Chapel, 2009, color film, 87 minutes.

THE RED CHAPEL (2009) gives one the impression that director Mads Brügger doesn’t care if he makes himself look like a jerk, so long as it’s in the pursuit of some greater truth. Alternately entertaining and unsettling, the documentary depicts a trip to Pyongyang undertaken by Brügger and two young Danish-Korean comedians, Jacob Nossell and Simon Jul Jørgensen. Jacob is a self-described “spastic” who often needs to use a wheelchair; his physical challenges and the North Koreans’ response to them are central to the film’s conceit. The jovial Simon is largely ignored by the director.

The duo arrive in Pyongyang to perform a deliberately incoherent comedy skit. Their North Korean handlers, who have power of approval over all footage shot by Brügger, transform the act beyond recognition and shove Jacob to the side. Only by speaking Danish can the director, Jacob, and Simon talk freely. The three men constantly lie in English to the North Koreans.

Brügger sets himself up as The Red Chapel’s conscience. At several moments he reminds the audience of the North Korean regime’s brutality. However, Jacob is the one who is really moved by the poverty and desperation barely concealed by Pyongyang’s urbane facade. While Brügger stays cool behind aviator shades, Jacob breaks down in tears.

Is Brügger exploiting Jacob? The director might be the first person to say yes. If he weren’t, the film wouldn’t have much power. Partly due to Brügger’s regular self-examination, The Red Chapel turns out to be a surprisingly complex experience, rather than a simple exercise in laughing at backwards communists. Imagine Borat (2006) if Sacha Baron Cohen articulated the ethical quandaries posed by his mockery in the film itself.

The Red Chapel opens Wednesday, December 29 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.