Question: What happens when you mix comedy and a brutal, sadistic dictatorship?
Answer: A one-of-a-kind Danish documentary that alternates between funny and chilling.
THE RED CHAPEL (2009) was the brain child of Mads Brugger. His idea: take two Danish comedians who had been adopted as infants from South Korea, and take them to North Korea under the guise of a “cultural exchange” from one Socialist government to another. The comics are Simon Jul, a healthy young man, and Jacob Nossell who suffers from cerebral palsy (or, as Jacob puts it, is a “spastic”). Both Jacob and Simon are eighteen and enter the project full of bravado. Soon after they step foot on North Korean soil, the young men are caught off guard by the harsh regime of then-Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il.
Their guide from the time they wake up until they go to sleep every day is Mrs. Pak, a loyal officer of the party and ambassador for the film crew. She tries her best to be warm, and is especially maternal toward Jacob but as Brugger says, “her English was made for interrogations, not small talk”. While showing them around, Mrs Pak occasionally begins to weep (out of admiration and gratitude for Dear Leader, of course). Everything is beautiful. Everything is wonderful. But if you look long enough into Mrs. Pak’s eyes, that perfection lays atop deep cracks.
Mrs Pak follows them everywhere and, at the end of each day, every second of footage is turned over to the Party for review. Thus, everyone has to be very careful of what they say because one wrong word would endanger both the project and their own lives. Everyone has to be careful, that is, except for Jacob because “even if the North Koreans were able to understand Danish, they would never be able to understand Spastic Danish.” Jacob stands in for us, the audience, who want to scream at the smiling faces.
The movie is actually two different stories. The first story is of the group trying to get their act performed. Brugger planned out a show of broad comedy sketches (“comedy is the soft spot of all dictatorships”) and a musical performance of “Wonderwall.” As every move has to be approved by the Party to conform to North Korean standards, their act is quickly altered by Party officials who seem wholy unfamiliar with any humorous concepts. There is a level of entertainment in the struggle to keep any kind of humor to the act and, finally, for Jacob and Simon to get the North Koreans to sing along with “Wonderwall.”
The second interwoven story, though, is the one that underscores the horror of North Korean life. Within hours, Jacob is hit with the realization of why he doesn’t see a single person like himself anywhere in the country. It has long been rumored that disabled children are killed at birth. Their eyes tell them this is more than rumor, and explains why no one seems able to figure out how to deal with Jacob as a person or with his challenges. It also makes you wonder if there is more than just politeness behind Mrs. Pak’s fawning and often repeated statements like, “If you were my child I would never let go of you.” His bewilderment turns to anger that he is expected to constantly speak with adoration about a regime that would have him murdered, yet he is powerless to protest against it. I don’t want to give too much away but by the end of the movie Jacob seems to have been changed more than anyone by the experience.
I’ve wondered what happened to the North Koreans after this movie was made, knowing they’d catch the brunt of Dear Leader’s fury at letting this mockery happen under their noses. I came across a blog post from Singapore-based filmmaker Lynn Lee who was also shown around North Korea by Mrs. Pak in 2008 (from lianainfilms.com)
Mrs Pak, we’ve been told, fell ill following the release of “The Red Chapel” and had to quit her job. Despite repeated requests, we’ve not been able to see her since saying goodbye in 2008.
She’s still sick, still very sick.
But can we visit?
No, still sick, still very sick.
THE RED CHAPEL is available to stream in its entirety on YouTube