I just watched “The Red Chapel,” a documentary about two intentionally bad Korean-Danish comedians coming to perform in North Korea, and this is the opening salvo by the creator: “Comedy is the soft spot of all dictators.”
Then the film proceeds with an exploration of the paradoxes of performing comedy/satire within a dictatorship, complete with censorship, cultural translation, surveillance and questions about why “a show as bad and bizarre as ours” was permitted to continue. For politeness or propoganda.
Indeed, the show they brought is very bizarre, a flip of the bird, designed to “expose the very core of [Kim Jong] Il-ness of North Korea.”
In this “documentary” there is a strange mixture of cultural disrespect and cultural challenge, polemical interpretation of conversations through the Swede director Mads Bruggerʻs worldview: basically an anti-fascist postmodern approach to politics. His theory seems to be, spoof the culture and the culture will cringe.
Instead, itʻs the North Koreans who make the documentarians cringe. The spastic comedian (meant to trigger disgust and shame in a country that institutionalizes disabled people) and the fat comedian (a kind of rawdog comic who mugs and grins) are co-opted into new, propogandistic scripts and acting styles. All the best laid plans of presenting bad art and mocking the politesse and zombie support of the clueless audience fail miserably, as what is laid bare is the skill of a dictatorship to co-opt satire that doesnʻt speak its language.
The film ends up being an intriguing, rambling exploration of the intersection of political propoganda, sentimentalism and surveillance, full of pathos and cultural insights and the increasing ridiculous of the directorʻs attempt at resistance. The director canʻt break through their official entourageʻs tight control of the itinerary or the troupeʻs personal or theatrical performance. The only way to continue at every turn was to let the North Koreans control the script. And what makes satirical comedy float as an assault against dictatorial hubris is that it attacks the hubris by creating a counterpoint, leading the oppression into a trap it canʻt anticipate by setting the trap with something paradoxically familiar. The satirist has to control the dialogue and the provocation. Has to lead, subversively, to skewer “leadership.”
While Brugger tried to do this, in a way — bringing two Danish/S. Koreans into N. Korea, bodies that matched but yet did not — he seemed to feel it was sufficient to simply thumb his nose in the face of N. Korean hospitality without actually communicating his nose-thumbing in any way to his hosts. (Marching in a nationalist parade with a spastic in a wheelchair, reading a hippie poem at a nationalist monument, etc.) In every major way, though, he ceded the power of setting the agenda to them because he had to in order to stay in the country and get onstage, and therefore, the mock theatre troupe ended up, whether they knew it or not, mocking the mocker.
What a contrast to the teddy bear insurgency, which triggered an avalanche of paranoia and over-reaction, with the dictator in the end mocking himself. In fact, “The Teddy Bear Revolution” attracted so much attention that it has its own Facebook page.
Parodist beware…. to lead through satire is a double edged sword. It requires the leaders being poked to react by adapting the satire as a personal attack. And that means knowing the language, understanding the culture and touching to flashpoint that will ignite laughter, bring attention to an issue, and raise the consciousness of the world one or two inches. Itʻs not an easy way to lead.
When it works…. what a delight to those who agree with the parodist, and what a lesson for the ones skewered. When it doesnʻt work, it loops back and smacks the satirist right in the face!