Erin Donovan: "A (self-described) unscrupulous journalist, and a Danish-Korean comedy duo (one who is mentally disabled and wheelchair-bound) spend two weeks in North Korea with the stated agenda to perform for the residents of Pyongyang in a show of respect for Kim Jong Il. But in actuality they are there to make a guerilla-style expose of the ruthless police state. Under the careful eye of their state-assigned hostess Ms Pak and each night submitting their footage to the state's 'video specialists' (who edit out any material that might impugn the Dear Leader) and Mads Brügger's documentary directorial debut The Red Chapel was born.... To say that the film tests the boundaries of documentary ethics would be a thundering understatement. The Red Chapel challenges every documentary ethic known to the filmmaking world."
"[C]omparisons between Chapel and the work of Sacha Baron Cohen may be inevitable," writes Karina Longworth at Voice Film. "If the smoking guns found in this invaded world are less over-the-top than the revelations of racism and homophobia that prop up Borat and Bruno, Chapel, though at its core a staged hidden camera stunt, also feels a lot less manipulated and manufactured. The show was an infiltration into an airtight closed state, and the film documenting it is an artifact that injects the initial comic shock of reality TV into a situation with actual global-politcal stakes. If that's not subversive, I'm not sure what is."
"The Red Chapel's shorthand log line, if it needed one, would probably be something along the lines of 'The Yes Men do North Korea,'" suggests Pamela Cohn in Hammer to Nail. "Like the Yes Men and others like them, Brügger is a ferocious cultural insurgent, the camera his most potent weapon. His film will force you to double over with belly laughs. It will also chill you to the bone."
But at Hitfix, Daniel Fienberg finds that the "problem is that Brügger is probably correct in everything he claims about North Korea, he just doesn't have the footage or the narrative to corroborate the thesis he's trying to make. Instead, there's sterile censored footage and angry, political voiceover and the two never join up for a second, nor does the film reach the grand conclusion Brügger admits he hoped for.... I'd have also loved to see the movie Brügger obviously wanted to make, but the movie he really did make is a dud."
Updates, 1/26: "The filmmaker may claim to realize the contradictions inherent in his satiric tactics, but he never figures out how to make sense of them," writes John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter. "The Red Chapel gets out of his control, and the thing it becomes is likely far richer than what he had planned."
AJ Schnack gathers a bit more linkage.
Update, 2/9: "Brügger doesn't quite know what he's looking for and can't really act out, given that he's in a police state," writes Dennis Lim for SUNfiltered. "As such his 'subversions' are limited to meaningless little gotchas, like reciting an inane poem about pineapples to a statue of the Dear Leader.... And yet, despite this tepid buffoonery, The Red Chapel is compulsively watchable, and revealing simply for the glimpses of eerily desloate Pyongyang and outlandish propaganda pageants."
Coverage of the coverage: Sundance 2010. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @theauteursdaily (RSS).