One of the many great parts about living in Los Angeles is the wealth of repertory theaters offering an array of eclectic fare for serious film lovers. The Cinefamily, at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax, is prime among them. These people dig deeply and care passionately, and they enjoy a loyal following.
So when the British organization Secret Cinema was planning screenings around the world Sunday night to protest Sony’s decision not to release “The Interview” amid terrorist threats — and take a stand against censorship in general — The Cinefamily stepped in to be a part of it. But they did it with some tweaks. Rather than show “The Great Dictator,” the 1940 classic starring Charlie Chaplin as a Hitleresque figure which was playing in cities including London and San Francisco, The Cinefamily showed its sold-out Los Angeles audience a film that carried its own relevance: “The Red Chapel,” a 2010 documentary about Danish comedians who travel to Pyongyang to put on a show.
Only we didn’t know we were going to see “The Red Chapel.” We didn’t know what we were going to see — that was a big part of the event’s allure. Folks on Cinefamily’s e-mail list got an invitation to a “secret protest screening,” the title of which would be announced right as the film was beginning. We were instructed to wear dark suits and bring a small gift for a stranger. It was all very hush-hush — which added to the buzz.
They insisted they would not be showing “The Interview,” in which James Franco and Seth Rogen play entertainment journalists who travel to North Korea with the task of assassinating Kim Jong Un, but speculation was rampant nonetheless. “Team America: World Police,” the completely genius 2004 action satire of Kim Jong Il which “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone staged entirely with puppets, also seemed a likely contender. After all, Paramount said last week that it would let theaters screen the comedy in place of “The Interview” — only to get scared and quickly rescind the offer.
“The Red Chapel” made sense, though, and offered its own brand of absurd humor. I have to admit I hadn’t seen it — I hadn’t even heard of it — and neither had the vast majority of the people in the audience. But it feels sort of like “Borat” in reverse, with sharp characters visiting a closed-off country to shine a light on it, just to give you an idea of its surreal, deadpan tone. Director Mads Brugger gained access by promising that he was bringing a comedy troupe with him as part of a cultural exchange. His companions were the burly Simon Jul Jorgensen and the wisecracking Jacob Nossell, Danish comedians of Korean descent who’d never set foot in their ancestral homeland. (Nossell was adopted from his home country when he was just an infant.)
Their act — a vaudevillian mixture of slapstick, tap dancing and fart jokes which wraps up with an oddly earnest, acoustic version of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” — is crap, of course. It’s just a guise to enter the country and expose the horrors of totalitarianism. They have to turn in their footage at the end of each day for approval, but they’re speaking Danish most of the time, and their conversations are often hard to understand because 18-year-old Jacob was born with spastic paralysis. But Jacob also serves as the voice of reason throughout this adventure, saying the exact thing we’re thinking in every weirdly oppressive situation.
Jacob also forges an uncomfortable connection with the group’s constant companion, the officious Mrs. Pak, the government-assigned escort whose mission is to show them only the eerily pristine perfection of Pyongyang. She’s unflappably sunny — except for when she bursts into tears at the very thought of the Dear Leader’s powerful work — and within hours of meeting Jacob, she insists she loves him like a son. This complex woman shows shades of vulnerability and inadvertently earns our sympathy.
But what’s even more disturbing is the way she and a top culture minister eviscerate the group’s act to make it a rah-rah celebration of “One Korea.” They strip it of the little humor it contained and turn it into a cheery, eerie piece of propaganda. Brugger and his pals have to go with the flow, with each new day and each new development bringing the possibility of fresh peril.
While Brugger himself never shows actual images of the well-documented atrocities he refers to throughout his narration, just the fact that he gathered any footage at all, got it out of North Korea and put together a completed film which has played at festivals and theaters globally — including Sundance, where it won a World Cinema prize — is a bit of a miracle. “The Red Chapel” is a darkly funny, deeply creepy peek into a world that most of us would never be able to visit ourselves, and probably would never want to, either.