Flawed but interesting, possibly not in the way intended
Mads Brügger seems to be the kind of documentary maker who approaches his subject matter with his mind already made up. He is not there to discover or investigate, but to tell you what he decided about North Korea and its people before he even set foot in the country.
Under the pretext of a cultural exchange, Brügger traveled to Pyongyang with two Danish comics of Korean descent: tough-looking tattooed Simon, and 19-year-old spastic Jacob. They were to put on a theatrical performance, and document the process in a film. The North Koreans saw it as an opportunity to boost their image and slip in a bit of propaganda, unaware that these guys are really mocking them and are determined to expose the North Korea as the oppressive evil regime that it is.
Throughout the film, Brügger's narration tells us that North Korea and its people are evil, duplicitous, conniving and manipulative. A lot of what he says about the oppression and brutality of the regime is probably true. But he does not seem to have any insight beyond what a regular westerner who occasionally reads about North Korea in the news would have. And I don't know what qualifies him to make one superlative statement after another, passing personal opinions off as expert knowledge, presenting speculation as fact. No sources or evidence is ever cited.
He says of Mrs Park, the guide assigned to their party: it's most likely that she learnt her English in the army; her English is more suited to interrogation than small talk; she works for the Secret Service. Of a group of clapping school children, he declares: they are clapping out of fear. He may be right, or he may not be. There is no evidence to suggest one way or the other. He is seeing only what he wants to see, and does not attempt to reach beneath the surface or understand his subjects.
Despite his young age, Jacob provided the most poignant and valuable insights. Obliged by his assignment to play along as the friendly and grateful visitor, Jacob is tormented by the duplicity of his role, knowing that the North Korean people around him will be torn to shreds in the final film. "There is more than one side to a question... It's not that simple", he wails in his "spastic Danish".
Brügger is eager to show that North Koreans are duplicitous, conniving and manipulative. We can only speculate on the motives and purposes of the outwardly polite Korean hosts. But we do know that, the whole time Brügger is singing the praises of North Korea in front of his hosts and expressing his gratitude towards them, he has nothing but contempt and hatred for them. Seeing this behaviour, Jacob confronts him: "Don't you have any moral scruples?" "None, not when it comes to North Korea," he replies.
Beyond manipulating his North Korean hosts, Brügger is not beneath manipulating the two young comics either. In one scene, Jacob asks Brügger to translate for him. Brügger says something completely different. "That's not what I said," Jacob says angrily. "Stop lying." Brügger ignores him and does it again. Perhaps Brügger's clearest insight in the film is when he wonders if he is manipulating Jacob for his own propaganda as much as the North Koreans are trying to do.
As a documentary on life in North Korea, I think this film is heavy handed and one-dimensional. But, perhaps inadvertently, it is interesting as a study of human nature, and how people on different sides of an ideological divide might not be that different after all. I wish Jacob had been in charge of the film.
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