Sundance 2010: Satire and smarts in 'The Red Chapel' and 'The Imperialists Are Still Alive!'
Friday night saw one of the festival's unlikeliest standing ovations. "The Red Chapel," part of the World Documentary competition, follows two young Danish Korean comedians on an oddly staged trip to North Korea. Director Mads Brügger hatched a scheme to take Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell directly into North Korea on a flimsy pretext of performing a cross-cultural comedy show while his real intention was to dig up dirt on the North Korean regime.
Every night Brügger had to hand his footage over to be approved by the secret police, so he couldn't actually do much snooping. But he discovered that though they had handlers with them everywhere they went communicating in English, the trio was able to speak Danish without translation, so they could comment amongst themselves on everything around them. The results are shocking, funny and wildly outrageous.
The film plays as part performance stunt, part investigative piece and, surprising even to Brügger, becomes a moving look at the difficulties of living with disabilities.
Nossell, who is developmentally disabled and refers to himself as "spastic," was treated with kid gloves by the North Koreans and is also shown growing increasingly frustrated by both their treatment of him and the level of pretense involved in Brügger's plan. Comedic, subversive and oddly moving, "The Red Chapel" has been kicking around the festival circuit for more than a year, but its appearance in Park City seems to have finally garnered it some attention. It's a real find.
Brügger had introduced the film before the screening, and afterward he stood up from a seat near the center aisle in the room. Jul and Nossell also stood up on either side of him, and as soon as the audience saw the film's two subjects, the swell of applause grew to an extremely genuine standing ovation, with much whooping and shouting. In the Q&A, the trio revealed that while in North Korea, Jul had been given an offer to stay in the country and perform in action films. (He declined.)
Asked what the North Korean officials thought he was making, Brügger said, "a bizarre vaudeville documentary. I never understood what they thought I was doing."
After "The Red Chapel," I hopped in a cab to hustle over to the U.S. dramatic competition title "The Imperialists Are Still Alive!" The debut feature by writer-director Zeina Durra, the film is possibly the most confounding I've seen here, alternately fresh and traditional, densely layered and simplistic, dryly witty and self-righteously on the nose. The film centers around a group of well-heeled international expatriates living in New York City. Durra makes the city into something strange and foreign as her characters deal with surveillance paranoia over suspicions of being terrorists.
Introducing the film, programmer Kim Yutani referred to "Imperialists" as "perhaps the coolest film in the competition.... It's somebody you'd want to date — stylish, smart and sexy."
The film seems at once like the dry sociological comedies of Whit Stillam (who makes a cameo as an especially bad dancer in a nightclub) crossed with films such as Jean-Luc Godard's "Alphaville" or "La Chinoise." As the film's satiric take on the paranoia and surveillance culture of the late Bush era rolls along, it seems to become less funny and more serious, which also makes it less charming and more annoying. Yet the film still has something, an intelligence and aspiration that really set it apart despite its flaws and inconsistencies. I, for one, will be eager to see what Durra does next.
Photo: Jacob Nossell (in wheelchair) and Mads Brügger (fist raised) in "The Red Chapel."
Credit: Sundance Film Festival