>>The Red Chapel

Denmark, 2009 | Directed by Mads Brügger

It’s hard to describe what The Red Chapel is. In voice-over at the beginning of the film, Danish director Mads Brügger announces his intention to expose the evils of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Though he doesn't quite end up doing that, what he does is one of the strangest and most fascinating things ever seen on screen. Disguised as a theater troupe, Brügger and comedians Simon Jul and Jacob Nossel (both born in South Korea and adopted by Danish parents), enter North Korea under the pretext of cultural exchange to perform at a variety show in the capital. What follows is less an indictment of the DPRK’s politics than a raw and powerful look at how a brutally controlling dictatorship changes an entire people and their way of thinking.

Through their North Korean guide and translator, Ms. Park, we get a rare glimpse into the day-to-day goings on of life in the republic, as well as a harrowing portrayal of the mindset of the oppressed. The fact that Nossel is physically disabled (“spastic,” as he says), in a country that allegedly euthanizes disabled children, adds another layer to this multifaceted docu-drama-farce. In a style one could describe as 60 Minutes by way of Sacha Baron Coen, The Red Chapel builds to a fever pitch of tension, and, like a train crash that runs into a car crash, it’s impossible to look away. With biting irony and remarkable tenderness, Brügger exploits his access to the insular country to create an utterly enthralling and puzzling film. Though quite muddled — narratively and ideologically — The Red Chapel is staggering in its honesty and depth, a depth even the director and performers themselves may not understand.

© 2014   Ash Arder,    "Untitled"

© 2014 Ash Arder, "Untitled"

>>Agrarian Utopia

Thailand, 2009 | Directed by Uruphong Raksasad

Sometimes a movie is so powerful it makes you reconsider the possibilities of the art. In the case of Agrarian Utopia, that would be an understatement. The beauty, severity, and complexity of this film are unlike anything you've likely experienced before. It might not be the best film you’ll ever see, but it’s certain to be one of the most affecting and memorable.

Two families in rural Thailand who are in debt to the government, with no hope of ever paying them back, are forced to farm another man’s land to survive. It’s so simple, but the film contains a whole world, a world that bursts through the screen, that envelops you in its warm and unrelenting grasp. The vast and idyllic landscape, the precision of traditional rice farming methods, the brutal struggle for survival are all captured with a sensitivity and attention to detail that are unmatched. There are so many moments and images in this film that stick with you: two men whack rice stalks against a tarp after the sunset; a group of children splash through the muddy rice paddies; a man crouches to smoke a cigarette in the pre-dawn haze; the land-owner divides the pitiful bounty for a season’s work between his two farmers. The thing is so vivid it plays in your mind for days afterward.

Without knowing anything about this movie before seeing it, Agrarian Utopia appears to be a documentary. From reading what little information about this film that’s available online, it turns out that it lies in a nebulous place between documentary and fiction; the filmmaker apparently rented a piece of land in rural Thailand and paid two Thai families to farm it using traditional methods (evidently it’s all done with machinery nowadays). With no other information, it’s unclear whether anything was scripted, which biographical details were true, or if anything the “actors” did was the choice of the director. But, whatever it is, this is an amazing film, and, arguably, all the more exciting because of the mystery of its production. And in the midst of a political crisis in Thailand, the film is as essential as it was five years ago.

>>The Partially Examined Life, Episode 83

US, 2013 | Frithjof Bergmann’s New Work, New Culture

Bergmann, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, asks this question: why, in the 21st century, with all the technological capabilities we have at our disposal, do most of us still have to spend our days doing so much unfulfilling work? Surely, if we put to better use our time and work and technology, we could work, say, a couple of hours a day doing the work we have to do, and spend the rest of our time doing work we want to do.

But this is not just navel-gazing philosophizing; Bergmann spent the 1980s in Flint as a union organizer where he negotiated an innovative labor contract. Instead of firing half of the employees, as an automotive plant wanted to do in 1982, Bergmann coerced the plant to cut all of the employees' shifts in half. With their extra time, Bergmann set up a community organization that worked with each of the employees to help them utilize their free time in ways that would bring them joy and meaning (i.e. cultivate their own entrepreneurial interests; learn mechanics or urban farming; learn to paint, write or even build a motorcycle). Bergmann has done work with Grace Boggs in Detroit and is interested in developing self-sufficient communities, communities that make their own food, generate their own power, forms of transportation etc., as a way of freeing people from the temporal restraints imposed by capitalism. Bergmann is funny, blunt, and has a lewd sense of humor, and he makes for good listening whether you buy his basic premises or not.

The Partially Examined Life podcast is pretty great independent of this episode on Bergmann. The basic thrust of the podcast is that three former philosophy students, often with a guest expert, have a roundtable discussion about a particular philosophy text for about an hour. They’ve done an episode on the works of Plato, Foucault, Nietzsche, Taoism, Marxism, Freud and pretty much everything and everyone in between. This podcast is probably the most entertaining way to get a basic grasp of what these fundamental texts are all about.

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