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Looking For Comedy in the North Korean World: “The Red Chapel,” Reviewed

Looking For Comedy in the North Korean World: “The Red Chapel,” Reviewed (photo)

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This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2010 SXSW Film Festival.

A confession: I passed over “The Red Chapel” a few times on the festival circuit before I finally sat down to see it. I’d glance over the description — “small theater troupe,” “Denmark,” “cultural exchange visit,” “North Korea” — and I’d imagine… actually, I don’t know what I’d imagine, but it wasn’t promising.

Well, mea culpa. This Danish documentary is incredibly uncomfortably funny, like a love child of “The Idiots” (it’s the product of Lars von Trier’s Zentropa Productions) and “Borat” that managed to grow a complicated political conscience. And it is, indeed, about a small theater troupe from Denmark who go to North Korea on a cultural exchange visit. Sort of.

Director Mads Brügger, who also narrates and appears on camera, wanted to make a film about the DPRK’s terrible conditions — to, in his words, “expose the very core of the evilness of North Korea.” Except the only way you can get permission to shoot there is to convince the government, who’ll be escorting and watching you closely the entire time, that you have only its best interests in mind. And so Brügger came up with bait, inventing the Red Chapel theater group, comprised of him and two Korean young men who were adopted and raised in Denmark: Simon Jul, burly, sardonic and tattooed; and there’s Jacob Nossell, who’s handicapped — “spastic,” as he puts — and whose speech defects mean that he’s the only one who speaks his mind of camera, since the secret police, who surveyed the footage shot each night, apparently couldn’t understand his nonstandard Danish. Mads sees the pair as an irresistible PR lure — two Koreans who, wanting to reconnect with their roots, choose Pyongyang over Seoul.

It works, even though the show they audition in front of stern officials is a wretched jumble of slapstick, drag, tap dance and an acoustic rendition of “Wonderwall,” and soon the three are being given a propaganda-filled tour of schools filled with perfect children doing music performances and creekside picnics attended by pretty girls. The flawlessly rehearsed surfaces and fixed smiles are, as Jacob puts it, fucking creepy, but in the face of everything the three men manage some inspired stunts of deadpan comedy.

03132010_theredchapel3.jpgOn a trip to the Joint Security Area, Simon solemnly walks around a conference table in order to have gotten a chance to set foot in South Korea, land of his birth. Mads convinces their escort, Mrs. Pak, to allow him to read a poem in front of the statue of Kim Il-Sung, to which all visiting foreigners are required to pay homage. He claims it’s by a famous Danish worker’s rights writer. It’s not. It goes as follows: “Love is like a pineapple / Sweet and undefinable.”

But the terrible grip that the Dear Leader has over the nation really repels any external application of irony, and as Mads’ plan to essentially prank one of the world’s most notorious totalitarian dictatorships starts to seem a little smug, Jacob starts calling him on that very fact. How can planned absurdity compete with the surreal, stupefying sight of thousands of people being used, as Mads himself puts it, as human pixels in a portrait of their repressive despot?

There are serious food shortages, thousands of people are being kept in detention camps, and the rest are trying to carve out the best situation for themselves possible, and trying just as hard to convince themselves they’re really happy about it, because they haven’t exactly been offered an array of other options. Jacob, who likely wouldn’t have made it to adulthood if he’d been born in the DPRK, ends up offering the most empathetic viewpoint in the film, a richer and more satisfying one than, it seemed, was “The Red Chapel”‘s original intent. Regimes can be evil — people are far more complicated.

“The Red Chapel” opens in New York on December 29th.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.