Film review: The Red Chapel
In 2009 Danish filmmaker Mads Brugger took a comedian and a spastic (both adopted Koreans) to North Korea. The Danes have falsely convinced DPRK officials that their goal is cultural exchange; the North Korean authorities on their turn see a good propaganda opportunity. The question after seeing the film that remains with the viewer is: who was playing who here?
The Danish crew exists of journalist Mads Brugger and Korean Danish comedians Jacob Nossell and Simon Jul. The group pretend to be a Socialist organization named "The red Chapel" aiming to bring the North Korean and Danish people together trough cultural exchange. The two Korean actors never visited their home land since their adoption as infants and have chosen the North to visit their roots. The whole setup is a hoax; the real intention is to see how far they can push the North Koreans and how much they can get away with. There is no intention at all to deliver a serious performance; the play is just a cover for their real intensions. The role of spastic actor Jacob Nossell is to use his handicap to comment without reservation on what he sees during the trip. Video tapes will be checked every night by the North Korean authorities, but no interpreter will be able to translate his spastic comments.
The comedians start with a try-out of the play they intend to perform in a Pyongyang theatre. The audience is a group of DPRK officials who view the play with stoic faces. The play is nothing more then 2 guys in drag screaming and yelling at each other. A North Korean theatre director is assigned to the project in order to adapt it for a North Korean audience. The director states that the play will need some improvement but sees some good elements to work with. All elements of the play are changed one at the time during the days before the actual performance. The costumes are changed in Mao suits, speech is dropped in favour of whistles, the role of spastic Nossell is marginalized and the story line is totally rewritten. Finally a salute to a united Korea is added at the end of the play. The only original element that the crew refuse to give up is the performance of Oasis song Wonderwall at the end of the play. The North Koreans are not to worried by this but will not allow a youth choir to accompany the Danes.
The Danes are treated to the usual programme during their two week stay, visiting attractions like the DMZ, children’s palace, Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum and so on. They brought a gift for Kim Jong Il which they presented to a government official at the ministry of culture. The present is a Pizza shovel as the Danes had learned that Kim loves good pizzas. The speech of Brugger during the ceremony is pretty funny, he goes all out pretending to be a die hard socialist and friend of the North Korean government. He keeps up with the rhetoric and pretended admiration for the communist regime during the rest of the film. The climax is during the Victory Day when Brugger and Nossel in his wheelchair take part in a parade on Kim Il Sung Square. Brugger puts pressure on Nossell in his wheelchair raise his fist during anti American speech, Nossell refuses. Later that evening they see themselves at the parade on national TV, Brugger comments that he now has doubts if he has gone too far. The final performance for a group of school girls in the theatre largely plays out as the North Koreans wanted it. Simon Jul sticks to the agreed programme and does not surprise the North Koreans with any improvisation.
So finally the question the viewer has after seeing the film: who was playing who here? The Danes went to North Korea under false pretensions and managed to be treated like important guests, play at a theatre, get invited on a ministry and participate in a parade. The film makers managed to get a rare inside view on North Korea and expose it as a totalitarian state. The Danes got their film that would not have been possible without the hoax. The North Koreans probably also got what they wanted, a great domestic propaganda opportunity. They got two Korea born Europeans who decided to visit the North and not the South to discover their native country. They were walking around with Kim Il Sung pins, participating in an anti American parade, and yelling revolutionary slogans. Ok North Korea looks silly to the outside world trough this film, but nobody took them serious before anyway. Domestic propaganda is much more important for the regime and they exploited this opportunity to the full, with the participation in the anti American parade as the jackpot. It seems that the North Koreans we very well aware of the game that Brugger was playing and just played along. So it seems that everybody wins here, although that is not necessarily a good thing when dealing with North Korea. The Red Chapel gives a good insight on how the North Korean regime manipulates both its own citizens and foreigners as well and is very funny at times. Comtourist recommends seeing this film in case you get the chance!