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Movie review: 'Red Chapel' is a prankish charade gone very wrong

Filmmaker Mads Brügger gained rare access to North Korea under the ruse of a cultural exchange.

March 04, 2011|By Mark Olsen

The uproariously odd Danish documentary "The Red Chapel" is in essence a prankish charade gone very wrong.

Filmmaker Mads Brügger gained rare access to North Korea under the ruse of a cultural exchange, having formed a fake theater troupe with two young Danish Korean comedians, one of whom has a developmental disability. (He refers to himself as a "spastic.") The Danes do not speak Korean and the Koreans do not speak Danish — they communicate in English, and the language loophole allows the Danes to talk privately right in front of their ever-watchful hosts, essentially commentating on events as they unfold.

The film quickly becomes a high-wire act, as Brügger attempts to maintain the ruse as presented to the North Koreans while also rallying his actors to keep it together in the face of mounting pressures as things go increasingly off course. Like "Borat" in reverse, Brügger and his performers are first-world sharpies who come to some exotic backwater and encounter something wholly different, more genuine, emotional and involving than they planned for.

All the footage was cleared by the North Korean officials who examined Brügger's tapes at the end of each shooting day, making the film's very existence a sleight-of-hand trick of subversive resistance. Brügger notes at one point in his voiceover that "post-modern irony never entered North Korea," yet there is no irony needed in the film's most unexpectedly emotional moments, such as a karaoke version of the song "Imagine" that plays during the end credits.

Things might not go quite as Brügger planned, but as is so often the case, that seems to have been for the best.


"The Red Chapel." No MPAA rating. In English, Danish and Korean with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes At the Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.

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