Sundance 2010: "The Red Chapel"

Friday night was a lot of fun. We ate a tasty dinner at Mazza, a Middle Eastern restaurant that we've been meaning to try and then went to the movie theater. It was very hassle-free: we parked in the garage and then walked right in to the theater and sat down to watch Grown Up Movie Star and then afterward just walked to the screening room next door for The Red Chapel. I really enjoyed both movies. We're going to see 6 shows at Sundance this year and I'm planning on posting about about all of them, so um, considered yourself warned.

The Red Chapel is an extraordinary documentary. Rather than objectively following a subject the director engages in gonzo-style film making in an attempt to capture on film the absurd evil that rules North Korea. Mads Brügger, the Danish director, arranges for two Danish-Korean comedians, Simon and Jacob, to travel to Pyongyang for a few weeks to practice and perform a show as part of a "cultural exchange." The whole time they're there Brügger is lying through his teeth to keep the North Koreans in the dark about his true intentions to expose the insanity of the totalitarian regime.

Jacob, who has a muscular disorder and describes himself as a "spastic" is the lynchpin on which the whole enterprise depends. After every day of filming Danish-speaking North Korean censors reviewed the crew's footage but they couldn't understand Jacob's garbled speech. As a result, Jacob emerges in the movie as the lone voice of reason, the only one who can openly question the craziness of what he sees.

Jacob is used by both Brügger, who is open about his intentions of ruthlessly using Jacob for the good of the film, and the North Koreans, who figure that it's good propaganda to shower a disabled Korean adoptee with affection especially considering the allegations of North Korean sending disabled people to camps.

It's a riveting film and very moving at times. Ms. Pak, the crew's North Korean minder, takes a shine to Jacob and smothers him in motherly affection but her ferventness is both unsettling and familiar to anyone who has meet a distant Korean aunt or grandmother. As Jacob points out, while all the North Koreans are kind to him he can see the contempt in their eyes. At one point Jacob has a breakdown after touring a model North Korean school; he's so creeped out and saddened by the whole situation.

I found myself getting a little emotional a few times during the movie. My mom's Korean and we still have family living in South Korea. My siblings were adopted from Korea and my brother Steven is developmentally disabled. I couldn't help imagining what it would have been like if my gentle brother had been born in North Korea. At one point in the movie Jacob asks Ms. Pak if he can meet some North Koreans who are handicapped like him. Her stunned and panicked expression gives credence to the idea that the disabled are not treated kindly in North Korea.

I'm not sure what time of distribution the movie has, but I recommend watching it if you ever get the chance. It really is a fascinating film. If you're bothered by swearing, the movie does have a fair amount in it (but most of it is in Danish/subtitled).

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