Darkly funny and painfully informative, “The Red Chapel” from director Mads Brügger, invites the audience along to see the strange-ness that is North Korea, under the pretense of having two Korean-born Danish comedians perform a vaudeville act for an auditorium of students.
With Brügger narrating his true thoughts and his final conclusions about the difference aspects of North Korea and the effects it had on Simon Jul Jõgenson and Jacob Nossell, the two comedians, this documentary enlightens from the side of a skeptic and the heart of two boys who feel a connection to the people of the state. The footage and political access is highly restricted, and the team is kept by Mrs. Park who’s loyalty to Kim Jon-Il, the Great Leader as he is so affectionately called, is what puts her in charge of the foreigners.
Through her translations, the innocent attempt to exchange classic Danish comedy sketches with their North Korean counterparts is tailored to fit a more linear, narrative fanfare.
Brügger goes from being a filmmaker trying to bring to light the North Korean oppressions, to a manager trying to keep his comedians alive and safe in the hands of prejudiced, scared people. Most of the political detailing comes out in the narrative, or via Jacob’s interactions with the people around him.
Jacob is disabled, and probably the reason the troupe was invited to North Korean, as a show of propaganda and goodwill, since it is common to know that handicapped babies and children are either killed or shipped out of the country. That fact came out powerfull when Jacob was asked not to talk (albeit kindly and very indirectly) and the lack of a single handicapped citizen in the two weeks he’d been a visitor. He speaks with a speech impediment, too, and uses it to a comedic effect as he must be translated for most of the movie from his “spasdic” Danish to Brügger or Simon’s English.
In one scene, when he’s prompted to salute, he tells them he won’t, that he doesn’t understand why they’re doing it. Brügger tells their guides that Jacob can’t function with so many people, undermining his friend and admitting his own weakness in a foul swoop, only to protect them from the unseen, terrifying government.
Overall, the commentary may be limited, but the message is apparent. It is a communist state that keeps the people in fear, keeps them from the rest of the world and afraid that if they show the sadness their Great Leader has caused them, they’d be killed for it. When the troupe is allowed to tour the school for the gifted, seeing so many talented and aspiring youths singing, or playing accordion, I couldn’t help but choke back the tears knowing their talents could never be shared with the world while their country is locked down from the inside out.
The views of the audience: the indignation and hopelessness in the face of the dictatorship, and the underlying, unattached grief of being solely a witness makes the two boys, Simon and Jacob, more powerful than their performance was as comedians. Jacob, at one point, breaks down with his helplessness, making him, essentially, the heart of the story.
If you would like to be enlightened to the plight of North Korea, this is the film.