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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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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.