PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - Deceit matches deceit in "The Red Chapel," a documentary whose many layers of propaganda, indoctrination, and pranksterism collide in bewildering ways that, while not the stuff of a big nonfiction hit, could draw attention in a modest art-house run.
Filmmaker Mads Brugger sets out to poke North Korea's brainwashers in the eye, but the skewering doesn't stop there: However righteous (and self-righteous) his intentions, his behavior is so morally dubious we occasionally feel sorry for his victims, who at least usually seem to believe the lies they tell.
Cousin in a strange way to Lars Von Trier's "The Idiots," the Zentropa production follows Brugger as he uses a society's discomfort with disability as means to send it up: Presenting himself as a theater producer eager to spread awareness of Kim Jong-Il's philosophies, he arranges for a "cultural exchange" trip in which two Danish-Korean comedians, one of whom is a self-described "spastic," will stage a program of skits for a North Korean audience.
It's never clear whether the performers believe their material is funny, but it's definitely a flop in translation: During prep for the show, North Korean cultural officials observe politely, then proceed to rewrite every detail. (So much so, in fact, that one might ask if the prankster has himself been duped.)
More than the performance itself, Brugger wants to show us the treatment outsiders receive when visiting North Korea, a program of information control so good their tour guide could rise quickly through the ranks of any American PR firm. The guide, known as Mrs. Pak, turns out to be a boon for the documentary -- a real-life character whose emotional displays of patriotism are interesting enough even before Brugger suggests a plausibly poignant subtext for them.
Also engrossingly thorny is the reaction Brugger's "spastic" protege, Simon, has to this close encounter with a mirror image of his South Korean motherland where everyone seems to be beautiful and the handicapped are nowhere to be seen. Simon's multiple fits of conscience are the film's most compelling moments, especially when he is caught in a huge militaristic parade in which Brugger tries unsuccessfully to convince him to mimic the Nazi-like salutes around him.
The filmmaker may claim to realize the contradictions inherent in his satiric tactics, but he never figures out how to make sense of them. "The Red Chapel" gets out of his control, and the thing it becomes is likely far richer than what he had planned.