Collected Stories « PREV | NEXT »: Ideas Have Consequences 2

December 29, 2010


I hate to go after a fellow arts critic, but Neil Genzlinger's review of the movie The Red Chapel in this morning's New York Times is too infuriating to let go.

I saw this documentary just over a month ago at MOMA, and I have been telling everybody about it ever since.  It is such a weird and interesting and in many ways brilliant little film that I am amazed it is getting a general release at all.  And then to have it instantaneously smashed by a critic who hasn't paid enough attention is too disappointing for words.

Genzlinger gets several things factually wrong.  For one thing, he says that the director, Mads Brugger, is visiting North Korea with a "bogus" comedy troupe consisting of two Danish-Koreans, Jacob (a self-styled "spastic") and Simon.  But this is a bit like calling Stephen Colbert a "bogus" comedian because the North Koreans wouldn't find him funny (which they wouldn't).  Jacob and Simon are both practicing comedians, though not as a duo, in Denmark; it is the way the North Koreans receive their particular brand of low-key, self-mocking humor that in part makes this film at once so hilarious and so chilling.

More importantly, the Times reviewer alleges that "the film has nothing to show but pretty buildings and pretty people."  Where was he when Mads and Jacob were forced (against Jacob's clearly voiced and therefore quite risky objections) to participate in a huge and active street demonstration against the U.S.?  Where was he when Simon and Jacob repeatedly received instructions about how their comedy routine should be "modified" so that it would appeal to North Korean audiences -- orders that mainly involved putting Jacob in a wheelchair and leaving him there?  Where was Genzlinger when the three Danes were taken on an honorary visit to the highest authorities, the innermost chambers, for a particularly terrifying ceremony of gift-exchange?  Where was he when they toured the windswept, abandoned-looking border between North and South Korea?  And where was he when they visited classrooms full of terrified, perfect, "pretty" (in the most horrible way imaginable), singing schoolchildren?  I suspect he must have slept through the film.
It's true that the production values are not stellar, but if you are interested in what this movie is managing, against all odds, to tell you and show you, that rough quality only adds to its appeal.  And it's true that Mrs. Pak, the Danes' official minder, who at first seems just a guard they have to drag along, is ultimately humanized and made sympathetic.  (Though not without her creepy moments:  consider, for instance, the way she is always telling the handicapped Jacob that he is like a son to her, and then hugging him as if he were a small child, though he is actually eighteen.  During one of these episodes, he turns away from her toward the window of the bus in which they are sitting, looks out at us and at the camera, and says with a combination of humor and despair, "This woman is smothering me."  Shakespearean asides like this, which he makes throughout the film in Danish and sometimes even in English, escape the censors only because his spasticized speech is incomprehensible to the Korean listeners.) 

But the fact that we finally view Mrs. Pak as "kindhearted and well-intentioned," as Genzlinger puts it, is mainly due to the way the movie handles her.  And this is true for every other character in the film, including the three principals.  The Red Chapel has been very carefully edited and voiced-over so as to give us, not only all the necessary information about the strange place that is North Korea, but also a great deal of fascinating information about the relationship between the director and his two only-half-willing accomplices.

It is to Mads Brugger's enormous credit that he ultimately makes himself the butt of his own film.  He is the one who finally seems obtuse and nuance-blind and insensitive compared to the two comedians -- and yet it is he, as the director entirely in charge of preserving and editing the snippets of film, who has intentionally made himself seem this way.  His self-critical technique makes for a great, psychologically deep movie; it also suggests a definite contrast between the North Korean mode of governmental authoritarianism and the director's own way of handling his all-powerful role.

Let me just give a single example to illustrate the film's subtlety.  Toward the end of the movie, when Mads, Jacob, and Simon have presented their god-awful comedy show and are about to go home, the director persuades Jacob to ask Mrs. Pak if he can meet other people like himself -- other handicapped people, that is.  This question is meant to make her uncomfortable, because the working theory is that all such crippled children in North Korea have been killed or, at best, warehoused.  Jacob does ask the question, and we see Mrs. Pak's face fall in response:  she doesn't know what to say, she doesn't know how to cope with his request without betraying her country or her sense of courtesy.  But rather than letting her dangle there painfully, Jacob (who is the dearest and most sensitive person imaginable:  the film loves him, and so will you) steps in and says to her, "Next time.  Next time I come I can meet them."  The humanity of this response -- the very idea that there would be a next time, that he would ever want to go back to that terrifying place, which has repeatedly made him collapse in distress -- is politeness carried to its ultimate level, where it becomes true kindness.  And at this point Mads says in the voice-over, "I don't know why he saved her from my question."  But of course he does know, and that is why he has preserved and highlighted this piece of film.

So please, don't pay any attention to that silly, ignorant Times review.  Don't miss your possibly one-and-only chance to see this it-has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed film.  You will not regret it.
December 29, 2010 10:24 AM | | Comments (1)


Right on, Wendy. I inteviewed Brugger back in the spring:

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