Once again, ordered by what I thought of them. The further down the list you go, the stronger I recommend. I wrote a bit more than the usual blurb about Rogue One because it’s Star Wars. And there weren’t any films this time I thought were awful. Everything’s got something worth checking out.
Where do we begin? There is actually quite a bit that can be said about the North Korean film Pulgasari (1985). First off, it is famous for being directed by Shin Sang-ok who was a prominent South Korean filmmaker until he and his wife were kidnapped by North Korea at Kim Jong Il’s behest. He was commanded to make great films for The Dear Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
A hostage director forced to make bad movies. Bananas. It’s like Misery.
Pulgasari has been compared to the Godzilla franchise quite a bit and there are definitely an abundance of similarities (Kenpachiro Satsuma, most famous for playing Godzilla in several movies, actually plays Pulgasari). It also has some elements of Der Golem (1920) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). He also looks a little bit like the monster from Night of the Demon (1957). Unfortunately for Pulgasari the title just isn’t quite as memorable.
Here’s the set up: starving peasant farmers are being oppressed by an evil despot king. Ironic…especially considering that several people have stated Pulgasari is meant to be pro-North Korea propaganda. The despot king is allegedly meant to represent capitalism. I’m not so convinced and actually wonder if that was just director Sang-ok’s excuse and he’s really making a slam against the Kim family. Anyway, government officials tell the peasants that they need to make iron weapons for them because “some bandits are causing a ruckus at a certain location.” These bandits are never seen. The peasants say they don’t have any iron so the government makes them use their own farming equipment to make weapons. Hmm…a nepotist tyrant who spends money on weapons to fight imaginary foes while his starving people are forced to glorify their ruler. Sounds kinda familiar.
Pots and pans are all the peasants have and the government murders them to take them. They even run over an old lady with a cart. We get it! The king is evil.
Ami (Chang Son Hui) is a lovely peasant girl who does her best to hold the movie together when the monster’s not on screen. The story doesn’t really start until Ami’s old blacksmith uncle is captured by bad soldiers and starved in prison. Ami sneaks him food, but instead of eating the ball of rice, he molds it into a toy dinosaur and dies. The figurine comes to Ami who accidentally sticks herself and bleeds on it, bringing it to life (♫ Suddenly Seymour!). Soon the creature starts eating needles. Finding it cute, Ami and her brother go to sleep with it. By morning it has grown from a plastic toy into a latex puppet.
Cut to a laughing executioner about to behead Ami’s love interest, Inde…for some reason. Just as the blade is coming down, the executioner is attacked by a terrifying rubber puppet who saves the day. Cue the squirrelly Saturday-morning-cartoon music. Pulgasari eats the executioner’s sword and we learn that the rice-monster grows bigger when he eats metal. Makes sense. Soon Pulgasari developes from a hand-puppet into a small child (because midgets are euthanized) in a rubber suit. Pulgasari then wanders off and we don’t see him for a while. Cut to a scene of the government beating an old woman.
This movie has a hard time settling on a tone.
We learn that some people have been captured. I think Ami’s brother is one of them. Doesn’t matter. Inde leads an attack on the prison where they are kept, but they get there too late and—in a scene that Attack of the Clones must have ripped off—the folks they were going to rescue just die right then. A battle ensues and the governor is killed. This gets the attention of the bad king. The government elite forces really suck and the battles feel reminiscent of the ewoks fighting the stormtroopers in Return of the Jedi. Also the sound effects of the swords clanging are hilarious.
A man-sized Pulgasari appears and rescues Ami from bad guys and then they feed him weapons to make him grow big and strong. Eat all your iron, Pulga. Soon he’s a giant, towering over all the people—much like Godzilla but with a slightly more gargoyle look. Clearly this is bad news for the evil king. The scenes where the baddies try to logically deduce the creature’s weakness is like watching Adam West decipher a Frank Gorshin riddle, but naturally no matter how random or absurd it always works. They first try to trap Pulgasari in a giant wooden cage by capturing Ami and threatening to kill her if he does not comply. Ami pleads with Pulgasari not to listen and thus a short-lived 3 Laws of Robotics head game ensues. He goes in the cage and then they set it on fire. Since the cage is wood and Pulgasari is magic, naturally the cage simply burns away and frees Pulgasari to rampage once more.
New plan: get a crazy lady to exorcise the blacksmith’s spirit out of Pulgasari so he’ll fall in a hole and they can put rocks on him. Again, amazingly it works.
Later some dying guy informs Ami that Inde has been captured. It was at this point in the film where I realized that we never see anyone get captured. We only hear about it. Minor detail, but I notice things like that. I wonder if director, Sang-ok, could not bring himself to film another abduction after having lived through a real one. The memories! Sure enough Inde has been captured and they hang him. Inde’s only been peripherally involved in the story so we’re not too distraught by his permanent absence, but Ami sure is. Ami releases Pulgasari again by cutting herself over the rocks where he’s buried. This alarms the bad guys once more so they invent a weapon to stop Pulgasari once and for all. It is the greatest destructive invention of all time. With it they “can kill 104 Pulgasaris” and take over the world! The weapon is your standard cannon. . . oh, and it doesn’t even scratch Pulgasari.
Pulgasari destroys the king’s palace and squishes him. Hurray. The peasants are saved. But now there’s no more iron for Pulgasari to eat. Ami begs Pulgasari to go away and disappear rather than eat their farm tools. She knows that they will have to invade other countries and take over the whole world to feed him iron forever. Naturally. Finally Ami tricks him into eating a funeral bell (I think). Pulgasari turns into stone and then explodes. A tiny Pulgasari emerges from the rubble and transforms into a blue ball of light that goes into Ami…who is dead now for some reason. The end.
Pulgasari is your typical giant suitmation monster movie. Standard kaiju. Nothing special. The story is actually a bit more complex than your average Godzilla movie and the period setting gives it a nice mythical flavor. Pulgasari is a good guy fighting a corrupt government in order to help poor peasant farmers. He’s like a rubber reptile Robin Hood. Not a bad premise. It’s not dumber than most of the movies in the genre, but something just never felt right for me. The original Godzilla (1954) was a legitimate film with political undertones and clever metaphors. The rest of the franchise was silly, but most of them had the spirit of fun about them along with hokey environmentalist messages. Gamera (1965) and its sequels were also colorful and fun. The British film, Gorgo (1961), was dopey but I still liked it. Pulgasari has a decent development and cool costumes, but it also has yucky colors, a bad score, and instead of the spirit of fun it has the spirit of North Korea. Eww. It just feels kind of oppressive and grim. It never pulled me in. At times it takes itself too seriously and then at others it’s just too cartoony. I still enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as some other kaiju flicks.
The American Godzilla (1998) gets a lot of flack and I think I know why. Despite the story actually being more complex and the characters being more developed than most Godzilla films and other knockoffs, it just does not have the same feel. Something is missing. Pulgasari is kind of like that. And you what? I don’t necessarily hate either of them. Watch Pulgasari. It ain’t that bad.
I’ve got to wonder why they needed to go through all the trouble of kidnapping a foreign director to make a cheese-ball Godzilla ripoff. I’m pretty sure anyone could have directed this film. It’s not particularly arty or even that good. Maybe he botched it on purpose. Shin Sang-ok directed several movies for militant executive producer Kim Jong Il, but this is the most famous one outside of North Korea. I’m not convinced it’s chiefly a propagandistic movie. North Korea fascinates me. As a firm believer in the anthropological and cultural significance of movies from around the world and from different times I find Pulgasari rather telling. Kim Jong Il may have produced it and maybe he loved it, but I must say I expected a little more polish and professionalism from the people who brought us the Arirang Grand Mass Games and 4 year old cello virtuosos.
Check out article on The Red Chapel “documentary” in North Korea.
Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle May 6, 2013.
We hailed a taxi in Yongin at around 5 in the morning. The buses don’t start running until near 6 in Korea. The taxi deposited us at Suwon station where we boarded the train to Busan. The five hour ride across the quiet and foggy Korean countryside was pleasant and uneventful. Upon arriving in Busan we met our final companion and proceeded to penetrate deep into the world of cinema.
The first film we saw was probably quite fitting for us. It was a South Korean film about a western woman visiting a small Korean town. It was aptly titled In Another Country (2012). The simple story of a French lady going to a small Korean town might have been entertaining on its own, but director Sang-soo Hong knows how to add layers and interest. It is told three times, with actress Isabelle Huppert (I Heart Huckabees) becoming a slightly different character (all named Anne, however) each time the film stops and tells a different story—all with the same locations, supporting characters, and loose tie-ins to the other plots. The story is also vaguely hooded within the context of a girl writing script ideas on a legal pad to cope with her ambiguous home anxiety. And so our elliptical wheel turns. It’s a quiet, modest, nonlinear film whose structural cunning and obscurity compensate for whatever some might deem a low budget. In Another Country reminded me of a sort of cross between Certified Copy (2010) and Run Lola Run (1998)…but I liked it better than those particular films. Among its many charms is Yoo Jun-sang as the mildly awkward but unflappably gregarious lifeguard whom Anne repeatedly has run-ins with. The lifeguard character effortlessly steals every scene he is in. Another shout out goes to the monk dude. I admit my bias when discussing this film as many of the smaller scenarios endured by the central character resemble many of my own since moving to Korea, but I think the average movie goer will probably enjoy this strange little beast all by themselves.
After the film we wandered down to the beach and ate some spicy Korean octopus.
Fly with the Crane (2012) was to be the next film we would view. Directed by Rui Jun Li, this somber and earthy Chinese movie feels more like a dramatization of a National Geographic article than a cinematic fiction. This is not Crouching Tiger, this is a gorgeous, meticulous, and authentic feeling movie about the subtly shifting winds of change. Old Lao Ma (Xing Chun Ma) is a 73 year old retired coffin maker living in rural China with his adult children. His role as a figure to be respected is gone and he is viewed more as a cumbersome relic clinging spitefully to traditional ways. When burials become outlawed in his province in favor of cheaper and faster cremations, the dying wishes of Ma and all the town’s elderly is in crisis. Tradition demands they be buried in the earth so that the white crane can carry them to heaven. Nobody wants to end up as smoke. When the government even begins to dig up Ma’s friends who have had secret burials things become more upsetting. The world around Ma is changing, even if it still seems very under-developed and simple to some, and with the coming of change so perishes the traditions of the old. Fly with the Crane is slow and simple but rich in its humanity. For a movie about a tragic figure trying to plan his own funeral it’s not without some moments of gentle humor and simple humanity. Although it is shot in largely very long takes (Bela Tarr fans will be fine) that let you just steep in the environment, the pace never drags and the music (although its use is sparse) is wonderful and well-placed. I cannot reveal the ending, but let’s just say I don’t know that I was mentally prepared for the final scene.
Following a fitful night’s sleep on a solid wood floor we were up again at 6 to wait in the ticket line. We managed to obtain precisely the tickets we were looking for.
Film three was the only movie I had been aware of back in the states. I had wanted to see it but was afraid I’d be in the wrong country at the time of its release. Ha! Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) is an American film directed by Benh Zeitlin and based on a play by Lucy Alibar. While the film unfolds as an immensely gritty American fable and allegory for the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, it proves to be also a hardy story about resilience, home, stubbornness, and maybe even the desire for one’s existence to be validated and remembered. Beasts combines elements of the real world but punctuated by an exaggerated logic and a poet’s sensibilities. The cast is great but it is the lead role of Hushpuppy played by six year old Quvenzhané Wallis that makes it all work. As the film itself quips, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted.” A child actor can make or break a film, and little Quvenzhané really makes it. The story follows the tough little girl, Hushpuppy, as she deals with living in uneducated squalor with her erratic and volatile father on the wrong side of the levy in a dilapidated bayou community called the Bathtub. Things go from bad to worse when the Storm comes and floods their world and then the ice caps melt releasing prehistoric bloodthirsty aurochs that rampage their way to the Bathtub. It is an edifying experience for the imagination and a welcome emotional letter for the soul. Much is dealt with and all from a child’s eye view. Between the amazing score that stirs your very core, the almost Herzogian use of animals, the sumptuous photography, and powerful pint-sized performance this proves to be a special movie indeed. The innovative auroch special effects were done by Death to the Tinman and MGMT music video director, Ray Tintori.
And then ate Vietnamese food alfresco.
So three solid movies in a row. We were doomed for a stinker, right? No so.
The last film we were able to catch before our train was The Pirogue (2012), a Senegalese production directed by Moussa Touré. I had no idea what a “pirogue” was before watching this movie. Apparently it’s not at all like those Polish ravioli things [pirogi]. The story concerns 30 Africans who are attempting to illegally immigrate to Europe via Spain. The trouble is they must face long uncertain days on the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean in a glorified canoe-type boat called a pirogue. This is a very even-handed drama that does not feel manipulative. Every character is a person with individual hopes and dreams and everyone’s will is eventually tested on their doomed sojourn. Storms at sea are bad, but when your craft is as exposed and vulnerable as theirs it becomes devastating. Soon desperation sets in and they begin to wonder how long their journey will go on. I do not wish to give away too much because the less you know going in, the more powerful the drama will be. This film was inspired by the thousands of Africans who have made similar journeys to Europe and the thousands who perished attempting it. This is not Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944). Much like Fly with the Crane, The Pirogue feels very authentic, which makes each moment that much more believable and heart-breaking. Arizona law-makers should watch this movie. We, in America, think we’re the only ones with an immigration problem, but it is a cross-cultural occurrence that challenges many nations, and all of those nations might benefit from viewing the phenomenon from the other’s point-of-view. The cast is powerful and despite the bulk of the drama unfolding in one space (a rather crowded boat) it holds your attention because you’re never sure what will happen next.
All in all I’d say we were blessed to see the diverse and amazing films we did. My big regret was that we only got to see four movies. There were so many other ones we wanted to see, but it was just too difficult and we only had two days. The International Busan Film Festival was an absolute delight and I highly recommend all the magnificent movies I saw.
The following day I was back at work and watched a film of a much different nature. It was a PSA about sexual harassment at work, but it was all in Korean so I’m not sure what I was meant to learn. Is spanking my coworkers a bad thing?
Some might say that the cowboy genre is a distinctly American genre with its familiar motifs and archetypes. Oh, they’d be right. Sure enough. But consider the masterworks of Italian filmmakers of Crobucci and Leone and the great era of spaghetti westerns. And if Europeans can tell tall tales of gunslinging outlaws in the lawless wild frontier, then why not Asian filmmakers as well?
Asian cinema and American wild west cowboy flicks have had a fun history together. When John Sturges made the classic Magnificent Seven in 1960 American audiences got a taste of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) without even knowing it. Wisit Sasanatieng relocated the wild west to his native Thailand with Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), a super saturated tribute and parody to American westerns and melodramas. Jackie Chan teamed up with Owen Wilson for the kung-fu cowboy comedy Shanghai Noon (2000), and cult weirdo Japanese director Takashi Miike made Sukiyaki Western Django in 2007.
Speaking of Sergio Leone and Asian cowboy movies, I think this might be a good segue into today’s film; Ji-woon Kim’s revamp and retelling of Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) with the South Korean western The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008).
A few of Kim’s earlier films might be known to western audiences. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) became The Uninvited (2009)—another in a slew of foreign horror films to be remade in America—and Kim’s first film, The Quiet Family (1998) was remade into Takashi Miike’s wild musical cult classic The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001).
The Good, the Bad, the Weird features many of the familiar character types and settings of its original spaghetti western counterpart, but where Sergio Leone lingers and builds tension and atmosphere, Ji-woon Kim is chiefly preoccupied in what will propel the action, and thus is not quite as rich of a film. If The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a masterpiece (and for my money, it is) then The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a modest success, but it has enough fun tricks up its sleeve to make for an enjoyable action comic chase movie.
Leone’s film was an epic, lyrical saga about three individualistic men (played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and the scene-stealing Eli Wallach) searching for buried treasure in the sun-parched wild west (actually filmed in Spain) while the horrors of greed, lawless violence, and the encroachment of the Civil War keep getting in the way. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a great and subtle anti-war movie, and considering Leone’s feelings about World War II, it is a safe guess to presume that it was quite deliberately referencing fascism, occupation, and (in one scene) the death camps. It was Leone’s most epic and expansive film up until that time and it beautifully represents the struggles of three tiny men who are swept up in the broader scale of the intrusive and rather impersonal force of war.
Kim attempts bits of this. There is mention of troubles in Korea and Japanese occupation is a central element to the setting, but it’s never handled as seriously or consistently as in Leone’s film. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is set in 1930s Manchuria with a strange treasure map stolen from a Chinese banker aboard a train. The setting, tempo, and clothing give it an immediate Indiana Jones type feel. Many private parties become very interested in the missing map, but it ultimately falls into the hands of the Weird two-bit train robber, Yoon Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song from The Host and Thirst). The Bad hitman, Park Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee from Three Extremes and Hero), the Good bounty hunter, Park Do-won (Woo-sung Jung), a rabble of Manchurian bandits, and the entire Imperial Japanese Army are soon all in hot pursuit of this one rather odd misfit thief. Nobody actually knows what the map leads to, but everybody seems to agree it is worth the senseless slaughter of countless lives. Like Clint teaming up with Eli Wallach, the sharp-shooting bounty hunter catches up with Yoo Tae-goo and they develop an uneasy alliance…occasionally.
The gears now in motion, the plot can finally evaporate.
We don’t know much about Park Do-won (the Good) and he is a fairly stagnate character with little interesting to do if it’s not action-oriented. Park Chang-yi (the Bad) has a bit more of a back-story, but mostly he’s just dead-eye glares affixed to a metrosexually be-togged swagger. Yoon Tae-goo (the Weird) takes on the bulk of the film’s intrigue and his character is a lot fun. Eli Wallach’s performance as Tuco may have stolen the show in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but Van Cleef and Eastwood were still fascinating characters with compelling inner turmoil. The new Korean take on things is decidedly thinner. For a while it bothered me that this South Korean re-imagining of one of the greatest western movies of all time was far more shallow than its source material, but I can treat it more as a sly homage that is merely trying to be a good rough and tumble rollick through brothels, black markets, and deserts. If that is all it is trying to be then I can forgive any lack of comparative richness and appreciate The Good, the Bad, the Weird as a fun stylish shoot ‘em up. And, boy, is it stylish.
There are several great action sequences in this film. The opening train robbery and hijacking is one of them. Not only is it slick, fast, and charmingly violent it also features some of the most memorable music in the whole movie. One thing that made Sergio Leone’s films so great was Ennio Morricone’s phenomenal and innovative iconic scores. Their strange jarring sound effects, twangy guitars, piercing vocals, haunting whistles, and the odd use of Pan flutes and Jew’s harps made them powerful and energetic and really helped establish the mood. The remake’s score (composed by Dalparan and Yeong-gyu Jang) is pretty good (though perhaps not as memorable as a Morricone piece), but it was those opening shots of the train set to those incredible blaring brass instruments that really set the tempo for the action that was to follow. It carried the spirit and promise of wild west fun in those first few notes. The shootout on the train, Yoon Tae-goo stealing the map, Park Chang-yi stopping the train and going on a shooting spree with his thugs, and Park Do-won finding his bounty is a blast to behold. Another thing Ji-woon Kim does to remind us of classic western flicks is the frequent use of zooms. It is very noticeable, but also very serviceable to the feel of the movie.
There are a few fun shootouts in the Ghost Market (one of which where Tae-goo comically dons a diving bell to protect his head from gunfire) and the three main guys, of course, reenact the brilliant standoff at the end, but perhaps the very best action sequence comes from the big chase before they find where the map leads. Tae-goo speeds across the desert on a clunky motorcycle (complete with sidecar) with the map in his coat. Totally exposed, he is spotted and pursued by the Manchurian bandits, Chang-yi and his goons, and the Imperial Japanese Army. Music going, guns blasting, and dust spewing, the bandits and Chang-yi’s men fire at each other from their puffing steeds and at Tae-goo until the Japanese whip out their Gatling guns and viciously mow down the horsemen from their jeeps. Park Do-won finally shows up and his eagle-eye is no match for any army…as the scene anarchically demonstrates. The scene is pure Indiana Jones and Yoon Tae-goo even skids along the dirt floor on his belly while he hangs on for dear life to a rope coming out of the back of a speeding jeep. This sequence escalates wonderfully and is choreographed exquisitely and there are a lot of explosions.
Naturally it’s tough to hold a candle to a movie as great as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but this movie does a respectful job of paying tribute to it in its own way. You still can’t beat that final showdown between Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, and Eli Wallach. And you can’t really beat the scene where Tuco is beaten by Angel Eyes (Van Cleef) and the corrupt Union guys while the band plays a haunting melody just outside in the prison camp. And you just can’t beat the scene where Blondie (Eastwood) ignites the canon with his stubby cigar or when Tuco frantically races through the cemetery looking for the grave with the treasure to Morricone’s fantastic “Ecstasy of Gold.” You can’t beat those. Those scenes are immortal. Those are some of the best scenes in movie history let alone western movie history. So Ji-woon Kim doesn’t attempt to tarnish them. He makes his own western movie in some of the familiar spirits of the 1966 classic. OK, so he does do the standoff, but he makes it different enough that you shouldn’t be too mad.
So what did I really think of The Good, the Bad, the Weird? I liked it. It’s a fun and stylish action movie with some great sequences, loads of wild west flavored violence, and a welcome dose of humor (supplied chiefly by the Weird). Essentially it is a movie chiefly populated by loud abrasive explosions and overly elaborate poses. I know I’ve compared it way too much with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but this film really should be taken on its own and compared more with contemporary high-octane action movies. Leone’s film is more lugubrious and biting and it’s really more of a character study than an action movie (although it has its fair share of action too). The Good, the Bad, the Weird was South Korea’s most expensive movie so far and you can tell a lot went into it. As a film it’s pretty decent, but when comparing it to modern action flicks it stands well above most of the competition.
Top 10 Reasons to See The Good, the Bad, the Weird:
1. It’s a slick, fast-paced homage to one of the greatest western films of all time.
2. Stuff blows up in it.
3. Kang-ho Song is a joy to watch.
4. Out of all the Asian cowboy movies I’ve seen, this is probably one of the best.
5. It has one of the best chase scenes of recent memory.
6. An old woman is placed inside of a closet.
7. It feels more like how Indiana Jones 4 should have been.
8. It hearkens back to the legendary classic without besmirching the original’s greatness.
9. People fire guns while swinging through the air.
10. It’s got one frenetic pulse that doesn’t let up. Like a good action movie should have.
Originally published by “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 8, 2010.
North of the 38th Parallel. It is one of the most peculiar, enigmatic, and isolated corners of the world. Nobody knows what really goes on in there. What is their culture and society really like? What is their population? How does their economy function? Nobody ever goes in and nobody ever comes out. It must be run by Oompa-Loompas.
Seriously though, North Korea is one of the strangest places on earth. It’s another planet! It is a fascinatingly hidden, cult-ish culture shrouded beneath an overcast sky and the beaming benevolent portraitures of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il [and now Kim Jong-un]. All media is government controlled and they are suspected of countless Human Rights violations. Even if you get in, you better watch your step and still you’ll only ever see and hear what North Korea wants you to see and hear. Great difficulties arise in any attempts to document and fairly assess this 46,528 square mile mystery. Difficulties, yes, but some have attempted nevertheless. The Vice Guide to Travel did an excellent piece on North Korea (watch it here), and there have been many more incredible amateur docs, but Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger took a slightly different approach with his Borat-esque documentary The Red Chapel (2009).
Brügger’s film would take both himself and two Danish-Korean comedians, Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell, deep into Pyongyang under the guise of a theater troupe that would be performing a traditional Danish comedy play as part of a cultural exchange for the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In actuality, Mads really only seeks to expose North Korea as the soulless dictatorship he believes it is.
Another twist is that Jacob Nossell is a self-proclaimed “spastic” (he has a severe speech impediment and occasionally requires a wheelchair). This twist serves several purposes. Firstly Jacob can say almost anything in Danish because between the language and his vocal distortions he will be unintelligible to the North Koreans who will be examining all of the footage they take. The second purpose is to test the North Korean rumor that infants born with genetic maladies are euthanized (as reported by several physicians who have defected). Mads suspects the Red Chapel’s embarrassingly bad show is allowed to continue because the North Koreans seek to dispel this grim rumor and so Jacob and the Red Chapel’s show is to be used as propaganda. Brügger does admit that he is probably guilty of using Jacob for his own manipulative means as well.
The Red Chapel alternates between informative tourism and comical rehearsals where the North Koreans gradually deflate Denmark’s play and replace the entire story with even more convolutions, bizarrities, and pro-North Korean ideological propaganda. The irony is that the Red Chapel was compelled to agree not to incorporate any ideological or political themes in their performance and yet by the end of the movie the Red Chapel performers must conclude their show declaring, “One heart. One mind. One Korea. Together we fight. Together we die.” Another big alteration made to their show is the diminished role of Jacob. He must be in a wheelchair the whole show and only communicate via whistle squeaks while Simon does most of the act himself, and at the end of the show he must stand up (but not speak) so the audience will think he was only pretending to be handicapped. In this topsy-turvy world where Simon and Jacob must don Korean uniforms and regurgitate propaganda for a “cultural exchange,” they are constantly micro-managed by their DPRK tour guides who must evaluate, deliberate, and confer amongst each to other to ascertain the possible political themes of every move they make. For instance, what does the “pussy” in “pussy-cat” truly denote? Might it be dangerous to the North Korean government?
Several humorous, subversively subtle and ballsy events pepper the movie just to keep the comedy going. At the revered statue of deceased but eternal president, Kim Il-Sung, Mads Brügger requests to read a silly poem as a (rather absurd) sign of respect and as an offering to the great leader in the spirit of cultural exchange. They also present a pizza paddle to be given to Kim Jong-Il. For all the humor and fun being had, whether Simon is leading an impromptu rendition of “Hey, Jude” on guitar, or Jacob is making insightful quips regarding the vacuous horrors of all the emotionless enthusiasm, what really got me about The Red Chapel were the moments of naked humanity. Most of the evil rumors are never put to rest one way or another, but we do see real people. Mrs. Pak, their tour guide, is one of the most fascinating and compelling people on the screen. She is only allowed to smile and be happy (and keep the boys out of trouble). She cries at the statue of Kim Il-Sung, but Brügger tacitly wonders if she is crying out of love, out of fear, or for memories of pains past. After only a few hours of knowing Jacob, Mrs. Pak is embracing him and calling him “like my son…more than my son.” Tearfully she says ‘it is not mother’s work to send a boy like him away’. There appears to be much conflict within this woman at times. I found Mrs. Pak to be more fascinating an example than all the ghostly vacant streets and empty shops of Pyongyang. Does she know she lives under an oppressive government? Would she call it that? Does she truly know what the rest of the world is like? Is she brainwashed or is she really just that gung-ho? In a land where the only images you are allowed to see are propagandistic, can you not still choose to love it of your own volition? I found her presence and unwitting contribution to the film to be incredible. She genuinely wants to show the Red Chapel all that North Korea has to offer, but is her devotion derived out of cultural pride or fear? We may never know.
The constant lying and games of deception—on both the part of the filmmaker and of North Korea—takes its toll. Jacob has a nervous breakdown early on. During a gigantic celebration (that condemns the United States for attacking them in 1950 unprovoked, of course) Mads and Jacob—pushed in his wheelchair by the motherly Mrs. Pak—wind up marching down the square and having to cheer. Jacob alone defies this command and moans complaints unintelligibly. It is an extremely surreal and tense moment that puts the beads of sweat on Mads’ forehead. Beyond Borat, there is far more danger if their agenda is discovered and their charade is uncovered. They are mocking possibly one of the most dangerous, dehumanizing, and restrictive governments in the world. We never see the death camps or horrific prisons for political threats, but the possibility remains and the danger is always there.
On a tour of a school, the boys see doll-like children performing robotic paroxysms all to the glory of their leader. Il-Sung’s and Jong-Il’s portraits eerily hang in every room just to remind everyone that everything is all doubleplusgood in DPRK. Big Brother is watching. They smile and clap as long as the foreigner’s camera is pointed at them. The children practice and perform acts of programmed artistic perfection reminiscent of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride. When anyone is asked how they are or how anything is, the response is always one of hyperbolic ecstasy and joyous exaltation. In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea no one is unhappy. North Korea is always portrayed as the most prosperous nation in the world. Everyone is in unison and the parades of thousands are never out of step. If Kim Jong-Il is as big a film-lover as is understood (so much so that he kidnapped director Sang-ok Shin and his wife and held him hostage to make movies for North Korea) then I just bet he’s a fan of The Stepford Wives. Watch excerpts from their famed Mass Games and you get a glimpse of their frighteningly awesome precision. People are pixels here.
As with The Vice Guide to Travel: North Korea [and their several followups with Dennis Rodman under Jong-un’s rule now], one never gets to see what lies behind certain doors. Movements are carefully planned out and must never deviate from the government controlled itinerary. One only gets to see what North Korea wishes to be seen and that is always maintained to be the very best. The sad, twisted irony of it all is that if what they show is North Korea’s best it still leaves much to be desired. There is a hollowness and a stifled melancholy about this country in its all-too flattering representation of itself. Perhaps I am revealing too much personal bias as an American [and one who lives in South Korea]. Coming from a country where differences are relished and celebrated and where many cultures and perspectives are encouraged and appreciated and where it is considered strange if everyone is the same and there is no dissenting voice, it is quite a culture shock to get a glimpse into North Korean society. Maybe we’re all just misinformed and it’s not bad or wrong at all, but whatever it is, it is the opposite of the American ideal of individualism.
I enjoyed The Red Chapel immensely. It may not offer more than a familiar peek into North Korea like some other documentaries, but it has a personality all its own. Following Mads, Simon, Jacob, and Mrs. Pak around in this dystopic world is worth the price of admission. For anyone interested in North Korea this is a must-see comedy documentary.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 16, 2011