Subversive pranksterism takes center stage in The Red Chapel, Danish director Mads Brügger’s attempted critique of North Korea via a Yes Men-style ruse. Enlisting the titular Danish-Korean comedy troupe, made up of portly Simon Jul Jørgensen and self-described “spastic” Jacob Nossell, Brügger infiltrates isolated North Korea under the guise of putting on a cross-cultural show for the militaristic state. The joke is that the performance will be a buffoonish farce full of fart jokes, and its underlying aim will be to reveal the country as “the most heartless and brutal totalitarian state ever created.” Yet though he says, in one of innumerable narrated comments, that “comedy is the soft spot of all dictatorships,” his film only sporadically expresses this opinion through its candid-camera material, which is dominated by an English-speaking escort named Mrs. Pak who never leaves their side (so as better to monitor them) and bursts into tears at ceremonies for “Great Leader” Kim Jong-il and at memorials for his father Kim Il-sung.
After officials greet Red Chapel’s rehearsals with barely suppressed discontent, Brügger’s deliberately unfunny comedy show is co-opted by Pak and a Culture Ministry bigwig and transformed into a bit of bizarre “One Korea!” propaganda. In this takeover, as well as the chilling sight of young female schoolchildren clapping and waving with brainwashed roboticism, Red Chapel provides a horrifying insider peek at the falsely happy ultra-nationalist façade that governs every aspect of North Korean life. Meanwhile, Brügger rightly admits that North Korea’s desire to exploit Simon and Jacob for their own PR aims—in part because celebrating Jacob will refute commonly held notions that the country kills its handicapped kids—is akin to his using the comedians for his own selfish aims. This fact soon proves problematic, manifesting itself in Jacob’s increasing anger toward Brügger over his manipulative-leader deceptions, especially as Jacob becomes more torn over the discrepancy between the country’s disgusting treatment of the mentally and physically challenged and Mrs. Pak’s extreme fawning over him (claiming, on more than one eerily unsettling occasion, that she loves him like a son).
Too bad, then, that the director’s ploys are stymied by the very national illusion he contends masks death camps and a citizenry’s consuming fear. Stuck behind enemy lines, Brügger and company can’t really poke the dictatorial tiger for fear of horrifying retaliation, thus neutering their satiric aims and, consequently, their ability to truly expose the nightmarish Orwellian rot lurking within barren Pyongyang’s gray concrete monoliths. The closest Red Chapel gets to truly conveying its setting’s terror and danger comes during Jacob and the director’s visit to an anti-American rally in which Jacob refuses to participate, creating a sense of quiet panic among their handlers and compelling Brügger to urgently plead with Jacob—in Danish the North Koreans can’t understand because of Jacob’s verbal impairments—to continue propagating their lie. Primarily, though, the film fails to peek behind the beautiful, cheery iron curtain, and in that failure to present more than just autocratic socialism’s public image, it proves an audacious stunt with minor rewards, unable as it ultimately is to fully support (or hammer home) its accusations and condemnation of its justly chosen target.