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DOC NYC Review: ‘The Mole’ is an Unbelievable North Korea Exposé

Within the global consciousness, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea holds a unique position of being one of the most infamous nations and yet, one that is clouded in secrecy. Having operated under a strict socialist dictatorship since 1945 with little interaction with the outside world, the mythology surrounding North Korean society has taken on a life of its own. Curious parties have long attempted to uncover the truth behind this mysterious place are not rare however. One such example is the ambitious undertaking depicted in The Mole, a 2-part documentary series from Danish director Mads Brügger.

The Mole is the result of a daring plot by Mads Brügger to infiltrate North Korea to expose the country’s unjust government. Having previously been declared persona non grata after secretly filming a satirical documentary while posing as a tourists, Brügger decides to plant a mole on his behalf. The chosen spy is a former chef named Ulrich Larsen, who joins the Danish arm of the Korean Friendship Association and gradually rises up the ranks to gain close access to its Spanish leader Alejandro Cao de Buenós. Armed with little more than hidden recording equipment and his non-threatening demeanor, Ulrich soon becomes embroiled in an weapons and drugs network of international proportions.

Through Brügger’s steely narration and a debriefing premise involving former MI5 agent Annie Machon, The Mole truly unfolds like a spy novel come to life. And fittingly, the plot includes several memorable characters revolving around our unassuming protagonist. Indeed, Cao de Buenós is truly a larger-than-life figure, prone to boasting about his power and influence within the Korean regime. And as Ulrich’s power broker sidekick, Jim Latrache-Qvortrup is suave and calm under pressure in his undercover role as Mr. James.

That composure proves vital to the operation, as we witness incredible scenes behind closed doors as contracts are signed and trade deals are set in motion. And if the several close calls aren’t nerve-wracking enough, Brügger reminds us of the real dangers involved through the tragic examples of ill-fated dissenters. Namely, American college student Otto Warmbier, who was imprisoned for stealing a propaganda poster and subsequently died from severe injuries.

But the most surprising revelation is not the immorality of the North Korean government, but the culpability of its foreign partners. Despite UN sanctions imposed on the regime, the Korean Friendship Association boasts a vibrant membership worldwide. And even more unsettling is the willingness of foreign governments and individuals to engage with North Korea for the nefarious interests of narcotics and weapons. As such, The Mole emerges not as an indictment of Korean socialism, but a further proof of the corrupting influence of capitalism.

SCORE: ★★★

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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