MIFF #2: I had high hopes for the Danish documentary The Red Chapel. Described as ‘a subversive comedy tour through North Korea’ and winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, I was expecting lots of laughs and a rare glimpse into an insular society built on the personality cult of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung.

Briefly, The Red Chapel follows two Danish comics, one of them a handicapped and both born in Korea, as they visit North Korea ostensibly to perform a comedy act in the name of cultural exchange. In fact, the director, Mads Brügger, is using them as a pretext to film the inner workings of a brutal, totalitarian dictatorship.

Over the course of two weeks, they are followed everywhere by their translator, party line-toeing Mrs Pak, are accidentally forced to participate in a rally and have their comedy act turned into a celebration of North Korea and Kim Jong-il.

The film wasn’t so bad that I would have walked out, but it left me with a rather distasteful feeling.  I’ve been pondering how to describe the many ways in which the film didn’t work for me and I think the summary is that it felt exploitative and was neither funny nor insightful. For example:

  • The film made fun of the propaganda spouted by Mrs Pak and the way in which she followed orders. This is a woman who has been brainwashed all her life by the regime and is there to protect the Danes from potentially embarrassing or inappropriate behaviour which may offend citizens. Yet she is ridiculed for her English, for tearing up at a Kim Jong-il monument and for saluting at a rally. And for simply being in the film and exposing her country to embarrassment, Brügger has possibly threatened her safety.
  • The Danes’ deliberately amateur and unfunny comedy act is turned into a set piece for North Korean propaganda by the North Korean director. Is it not so unlikely that polite hosts, North Korean or otherwise, and not wishing to embarrass themselves or their guests, would try to turn a bad show into something palatable and amusing for the audience? No matter how gauche the end product may seem to us
  • We are taken on the Danes’ sightseeing trip, where they tour monolithic concrete monuments, military bases and are presented with displays of amassed children singing, dancing and clapping. How is this new or insightful? Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of North Korea would know that of course this is the kind of thing you’re going to be made to see by the regime.

Throughout the film I had the same feeling as when I watched Borat, when Sacha Baron Cohen tricked himself an invitation to a southern dinner party. There he proceeded to offend his hosts and the guests, all apparently in the name of exposing their hypocrisy and intolerance, but in fact just exploitng the politeness, patience and goodwill they felt they had to extend towards this uncouth guest.

As Jacob, the handicapped comedian, says at one stage to Brugger ‘do you have no moral scruples?’. That pretty much sums out my feeling as I left the cinema.

Here’s a list of what else I’m seeing at MIFF this year.