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This Danish documentary about a small performing group's visit to North Korea is described in the blurb as venturing "into territory somewhere between Michael Moore and Borat" but more importantly "bankrolled by Lars von Trier's Zentropa." We're in the realm of von Trier and Jørgen Leth's Five Obstructions, a filmed set of challenges dreamed up by von Trier, except that this time the challenge is to fool a set of North Korean minders and make a film that will show up the dictatorship, right in front of their eyes -- a pretty dangerous Obstruction. The group's visit, filmed all along the way by Mads Brügger's team and with him in charge, is technically a mission of cultural exchange. The North Koreans think it's a chance for manipulation and propaganda about how wonderful the country and its capital Pyonyang and their Dear Leader Kim Jong Il are. For the Danes, it's a chance to show up their hosts for the pawns and robots and fascists they are.
Mads Brügger's secret weapon is half his two-man Red Chapel comedy troupe, made up of young men born in Korea who've lived all their lives in Denmark and think of themselves as Danish, but a little bit Korean. Jacob Nossell is spastic -- the word he uses for himself. He has cerebral palsy, walks clumsily, and when he speaks, it sounds like its coming out of a wind tunnel full of laughing gas.
The thing about Jacob is that he makes the North Koreans profoundly uncomfortable. There are no handicapped people on view in the whole country -- or at least not in Pyonyang. But Jacob, though handicapped, is cute and endearing; he smiles a lot and looks kind of hip; he has spiky hair. He's also very outspoken. You can also feel how Danish Jacob and Simon are, though that is one of many things the North Koreans don't want to see. In their eagerness to fool others, they themselves are easily fooled. The visitors' chief minder, who is with them every step of the way and acts as their translator, Mrs Pak, falls totally in love with Jacob, in a motherly way, perhaps initially out of pity. She hugs him and practically drools over him and tells him she wishes he were her son. The twist, one of several, is that Jacob is initially repelled but ultimately touched by this.
Jacob's spastic way of talking is so distorted, nobody in North Korea can understand him when he speaks Danish, so he has a secret language the group and we can understand and the North Koreans cannot. When he looks away from Mrs. Pak and says "I feel like I'm being smothered -- I can't breathe!" she has no idea what he's saying.
Jacob's partner is the chubby Simon Jul Jørgensen. Simon aims to perform an acoustic rendition of Oasis's "Wonderwall" accompanied by a choir of Korean schoolgirls, and Jacob, who uses a wheelchair for longer walks, is to accompany him. Simon is ostensibly the leader of the Red Chapel comedy group, but it is Jacob who matters here.
The tour runs into several key "Obstructions." First of all there is Jong Se-jin, a theater person who is assigned to Red Chapel along with Mrs. Pak, and when he watches Simon and Jacob doing their routine, which is strictly designed to be silly, crude, and funny, neither he nor any of his assistants is pleased. They clap, but their facial expressions show stony distaste. The toy kingdom style of the country is revealed early on when the visitors are taken to bow down before a large statue of Kim Il Song, father of Kim Jong Il. When Mrs. Pak is asked what she feels about the Dear Leader's dead father, she breaks into tears. The narrator interprets this as being the only way she can express how awful it is to in this country.
After the troupe is set up in a theater and do their performance in rehearsal, the Korean theater person steps in with some "suggestions." Actually what he wants is to remove any shred of Danishness from the performance and substitute an entirely new routine, with different costumes and props. A key aspect: Jacob is to remain in his wheelchair for the entire performance and then appear to walk up out of it normally at the end, acting as if he isn't handicapped, just pretending to be. Something has to be devised to hide that an actual handicapped person has been allowed to perform on a North Korean stage. A lot more manipulations are introduced, and Simon and Jacot are given Kim Jong Il suits to wear, and King Song Il buttons to pin on, showing they're safe. The performances by young students from a special theatrical school speak for themselves. The little girls and boys are sad and scary. But even Jacob begins to see that in some ways, dictatorship works, and some people are happy with its order and simplicity. There's something sweet and sad about Mrs. Pak.
Then comes a photo op you wouldn't believe: a chance to be part of the country's biggest event of the year, a commemoration of the day the Korean War began, started, according to their mythology, by the Americans. There are many explanations of how evil the Americans are. The Danes aren't expected to mind. Mrs. Pak, Mads, and Jacob in his wheelchair participate in the march with everyone raising their fist in a fascist salute in honor of the Dear Leader. Jacob breaks down at this. He will not raise his right fist. Luckily, nobody but us and the Danes know what he's saying. Before the end of the film, though, Jacob is playing and having a good time with kids. in he end the film, which is a tad less subversive than it may want to be, is as much about Jacob as it is about North Korean's fake exterior and hidden evils.
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