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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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Bro and Tell

BFFs And Night Court For Sports

Bromance and Comeuppance On Two New Comedy Crib Series

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“Silicon Valley meets Girls meets black male educators with lots of unrealized potential.”

That’s how Carl Foreman Jr. and Anthony Gaskins categorize their new series Frank and Lamar which joins Joe Schiappa’s Sport Court in the latest wave of new series available now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. To better acquaint you with the newbies, we went right to the creators for their candid POVs. And they did not disappoint. Here are snippets of their interviews:

Frank and Lamar

via GIPHY

IFC: How would you describe Frank and Lamar to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Carl: Best bros from college live and work together teaching at a fancy Manhattan private school, valiantly trying to transition into a more mature phase of personal and professional life while clinging to their boyish ways.

IFC: And to a friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Carl: The same way, slightly less coherent.

Anthony: I’d probably speak about it with much louder volume, due to the bar which would probably be playing the new Kendrick Lamar album. I might also include additional jokes about Carl, or unrelated political tangents.

Carl: He really delights in randomly slandering me for no reason. I get him back though. Our rapport on the page, screen, and in real life, comes out of a lot of that back and forth.

IFC: In what way is Frank and Lamar a poignant series for this moment in time?
Carl: It tells a story I feel most people aren’t familiar with, having young black males teach in a very affluent white world, while never making it expressly about that either. Then in tackling their personal lives, we see these three-dimensional guys navigate a pivotal moment in time from a perspective I feel mainstream audiences tend not to see portrayed.

Anthony: I feel like Frank and Lamar continues to push the envelope within the genre by presenting interesting and non stereotypical content about people of color. The fact that this show brought together so many talented creative people, from the cast and crew to the producers, who believe in the project, makes the work that much more intentional and truthful. I also think it’s pretty incredible that we got to employ many of our friends!

Sport Court

Sport Court gavel

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Joe: SPORT COURT follows Judge David Linda, a circuit court judge assigned to handle an ad hoc courtroom put together to prosecute rowdy fan behavior in the basement of the Hartford Ultradome. Think an updated Night Court.

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Joe: Remember when you put those firecrackers down that guy’s pants at the baseball game? It’s about a judge who works in a court in the stadium that puts you in jail right then and there. I know, you actually did spend the night in jail, but imagine you went to court right that second and didn’t have to get your brother to take off work from GameStop to take you to your hearing.

IFC: Is there a method to your madness when coming up with sports fan faux pas?
Joe: I just think of the worst things that would ruin a sporting event for everyone. Peeing in the slushy machine in open view of a crowd seemed like a good one.

IFC: Honestly now, how many of the fan transgressions are things you’ve done or thought about doing?
Joe: I’ve thought about ripping out a whole row of chairs at a theater or stadium, so I would have my own private space. I like to think of that really whenever I have to sit crammed next to lots of people. Imagine the leg room!

Check out the full seasons of Frank and Lamar and Sport Court now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”


Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”


But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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