The Red Chapel
Directed by Mads Brügger
Rating: 4 out of 4 stars
If The Red Chapel isn’t the best documentary in years, it is certainly the bravest. It follows three men as they attempt to bring down the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) from the inside. It doesn’t help that one of them is a journalist, one a comedian, and the last a self described spastic (i.e. sufferer of cerebral palsy). Armed with only a few video cameras, a small crew, and cajones that would make Werner Herzog jealous, they descend into the heart of Pyongyang to uncover the truth behind the abhorrent evil that is the DPRK. The fact that they accomplished what they did and got back out alive (and with all of their footage intact) is nothing short of a miracle.
While I was trying to construct this review, I tried to think of other examples of documentary makers who put themselves in harm’s way all for the sake of their work. A few films and scenes in particular come to mind: Sacha Baron Cohen bungling the national anthem at a rodeo in Borat, Michael Moore challenging Guantanamo guards to give 9/11 survivors medical coverage in Sicko, and Herzog diving under a continent of ice in Encounters at the End of the World. But they all pale in comparison to what Mads Brügger and his crew get away with. Never before have I been so simultaneously terrified and captivated by a documentary before.
The film follows director Mads Brügger and two Danish-Korean (yes, you read that right) comedians who pose as a troupe named The Red Chapel. They enter the DPRK under the guise of a cultural exchange wherein they will perform “classic Danish comedy.” But in reality, it is a compilation of some of the most overblown and deliberately bizarre acts ever composed. Simon (the comedian) plays the straight man who, armed with his ever present guitar, spends the entire act abusing and humiliating Jacob (the spastic). Why pose as a comedy troupe? As Brügger explains at the start of the film, comedy is the weak spot of every dictatorship.
And so they cavort around the DPRK raising havoc in as many ways as possible. During the presentation of flowers to the statue of the “Eternal President”, Kim Il-Sung, a rite which all foreigners are required to take part in, they read an inappropriate Danish children’s poem in front of the deified figure. They sing an impromptu song at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. An unwilling Jacob is forced to take part in an anti-American demonstration on the anniversary of the start of the Korean conflict. During one of their performances in front of a selected audience they break out into The Beatles’ Hey Jude and get the crowd to clap and sing along. But the best parts are watching how their handler’s try to control their reactions to their ridiculous and offensive antics.
But as guests of the DPRK, they are subjected to an almost unreal set of regulations. They must constantly be sheparded around by a state handler, in this case the ever-suffering Mrs. Pak. They are not allowed to leave their rooms at night. And even worse, every night they must hand over all of their footage to Korean censors who make sure that they do nothing to insult or belittle the DPRK and its glorious leader Kim Jong-il. So this creates the most interesting dynamic of the film, they must constantly act like they are enjoying themselves while secretly acting subversive. By the grace of God they didn’t have Danish translators, so they speak their native language whenever they want privacy. This leads to several of the film’s best scenes where they say something derogatory in Danish only to contradict it in English, the langua franca used by both parties. For example, take one scene where they admire a Korean memorial. Jacob matter of fact says in Danish, “It’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” Cut to Brügger who informs Mrs. Pak in English that, “It’s the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.”
This actually addresses one of the film’s most compelling forces, the presence of Jacob. In the DPRK people who are retarded or physically disabled are shipped off to prison camps. For most of the North Koreans that The Red Chapel encounter, Jacob is the first and only handicapped person that they have ever seen. As such, he is the only person who is allowed to speak his mind. His interactions with Mrs. Pak are extremely touching, especially the scene where he manages to make her say that she wishes that he was her own son. In that moment, we see a lifetime of fear and suffering in her eyes. “Did she have a son? What happened to him,” we can’t help but think.
In fact, for all of the humor and shock value of The Red Chapel, it is also devastatingly tragic. After visiting an elementary school for North Korea’s smartest, most talented, and most well fed students, Jacob retreats to their hotel and breaks down. I’m not sure how many of my readers have ever heard a person with cerebral palsy have an emotional breakdown, but it is an experience unlike any other. Jacob loudly wails that he is devastated that there is nothing that he can do to stop their suffering. He knows that their smiling faces were all a facade and that they can never escape from the dystopian horrors of North Korea. For all of his antics, Jacob is by far the most human of the troupe. Simon is content to protest at first, but quickly accepts a role as an observer. And Brügger has no choice but to push them to risk their lives for the sake of his documentary. In one scene Jacob challenges Brügger by asking him, “Don’t you have any moral scruples?” He answers, “When dealing with the North Koreans, no I don’t.”
Don’t forget that for all of its strange customs and the sometimes entertaining Dr. Seussian logic that is used to run itself, North Korea remains the worst dictatorship in the world. As Brügger points out, in the 1990s North Korea suffered one of the worst famines on record, resulting in the loss of several million to starvation. Quite simply, Kim Jong-il murdered millions of his people with his foolish agricultural policies and unwillingness to support them. In the meantime, he has held those unfortunate enough to survive in the most closely monitored police state in human history. Mads Brügger did not set out to make a comedy. He set out to make a film that would bring the North Koreans to justice.
They used their comedy routine to demonstrate how controlled and oppressive the DPRK truly is. It is horrifying to watch how The Red Chapel’s handlers force them to change their act so that it is more “acceptable.” Their act, which for all its craziness was founded in classic Danish comedy sketches, was completely rewritten by a North Korean cultural protégé. What started as an act that featured Simon and Jacob as being equally important ended with a bastardization where neither were allowed to talk, they had to use whistles and kazoos to communicate, and Jacob had to pretend that he was a healthy man merely acting like he was handicapped. Even worse, although they were promised that their act would be non-ideological, they are forced to include a propaganda declaration at the end of their performance where Simon is made to say something along the lines of, “One heart, one mind, one Korea. For this we live. For this we will die.” As Brügger points out, the only culture being exchanged in North Korea is North Korean.
At the end of the day, The Red Chapel is an entertaining, but utterly unsettling documentary. It might very well go down in history as one of the most important documentaries of the decade. At its premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, it won the Grand Jury Prize. It is now making the film festival circuit and gaining significant momentum. And you know what, they deserve it. The Red Chapel took more heart and courage to make than most film makers will use in their entire careers. It is simultaneously one of the scariest, boldest, funniest, and just plain human documentaries ever made. See it not only for its superb craftsmanship, but for the people suffering in North Korea. See it for Mrs. Pak and all of the others who must continue to suffer the nightmare that is the DPRK.