Sony Pictures has killed The Interview.
The James Franco–Seth Rogen comedy about an airhead celebrity journalist and his producer who travel to North Korea to interview and possibly assassinate Kim Jong Un isn't coming out on Christmas. It may never come out — Sony's yet to make a final decision on the fate of the film, which has been pulled from its release worldwide. Fellow studio Paramount's reportedly feeling so jumpy about the current tension that it's gone ahead and canceled screenings of Team America: World Police, which has as its villain a puppet version of Kim Jong Il, that some theaters had planned as replacements.
Luckily, there's one comedy involving North Korea that everyone can and should watch right now, and it's sharper, darker, and more empathetic about the surreality and awfulness of life under the dictatorship. It's called The Red Chapel, it's currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime, and it needs no exaggeration for comic effect — it's a documentary.
The director of The Red Chapel is a Danish filmmaker and TV host named Mads Brügger, who takes a Borat-like approach to his kamikaze trip into North Korea. He recruits two Danish comedians of Korean descent to pose as a theater troupe on a cultural exchange mission. There's the wry Simon Jul Jørgensen, strapping and tattooed, and there's Jacob Nossell, who's 18 and has spastic paralysis.
Brügger believes the pair's propaganda potential will prove irresistible — two young men traveling back to the homeland from which they were adopted, but choosing the North over the South, and one of them disabled, coming to a country in which those with disabilities are allegedly killed or shipped off to camps.
Brügger's right. The "troupe" is given a show at a national theater despite the fact that their performance consists of slapstick, some inept tap dancing, and a climactic rendition of Oasis' "Wonderwall." Between rehearsals in which government officials rework their act, the trio are given carefully stage-managed tours of Pyongyang by Mrs. Pak, their state-assigned guide, who's with them every step of the way, keeping them in line, feeding them the party line, and cooing over Nossell, whom she says she feels for like a son.
Brügger, who narrates the film, says he wants to "achieve what no one had done before — expose the very core of the evilness of North Korea," which he calls "the most heartless and brutal totalitarian state ever created." What he and his pair of comedians find over their two-week trip isn't surprising, but it is unforgettably disturbing and sometimes upsetting in its transparently scripted strangeness.
Jørgensen and Nossell are fitted for uniforms and, with Brügger, taken to see a museum display of downed U.S. military planes and musical performances by perfect little boys and girls. At the Demilitarized Zone, Jørgensen asks with a straight face if he can step foot in South Korea, land of his birth, which he achieves by making a circuit around a conference table. Brügger and Nossell find themselves at a peace demonstration in a scene that can't be described — it just needs to be seen.
But simply mocking North Korea is easy and cheap, and what The Red Chapel manages that The Interview fails at is an understanding of just how trapped the people it is getting a rare peek at are, even the officials, loyalists, and collaborators. When Mrs. Pak weeps at the foot of the memorial statue of Kim Jong Il's father Kim Il Sung, it is, as Brügger points out, its own sort of theater, but those are also real tears. It is a good career move for Mrs. Pak to spontaneously sob over the loss of the Eternal President of the Republic. It's a good career move for her to want to.
Brügger is the engineer and voice of The Red Chapel, but Nossell is its heart and conscience, calling the director to task about the lies he tells to keep them in the country and having a breakdown early on over how helpless being there makes him feel. Nossell, whose speech is too slurred by his condition for the secret police who review the team's tapes each night to understand, is the only one who's able to speak his mind on screen throughout the movie, and he has the toughest time shrugging off what he sees. "They're also really nice to me," he says of Mrs. Pak and their other handlers. "At the same time I clearly sense the contempt they have for me."
The Red Chapel is funny — blisteringly so. But it is also terribly sad. When Brügger observes that "comedy is the soft spot of all dictatorships," he's right, in that it's a way of puncturing the pomp and circumstance of regimes that are by definition humorless. But as ripe targets as the Dear Leader and, now, his son, the Great Successor, can be, under their rule millions of people exist in claustrophobic, tyrannized isolation. The Red Chapel attests that jokes may come more easily when you focus on the dictator and ignore his subjects, but that's hardly the whole picture.