This is a hard movie to describe. I have seen a few people try – but it doesn’t quite get to how I see it.
In short, two Korean born Danish comedians (Simon and Jacob) return to Korea but go to North Korea, not South Korea. They are accompanied by their “manager” (Mads Brugger) under the pretence of putting on a comedy show for the North Koreans in a cultural exchange – possibly the worst show ever produced. In truth, they are there to show the darkness that pervades North Korean society by their interactions and Simon who as a (self labelled) spastic is a living representation of what is never allowed in North Korea – perfect children only please.
The movie works on many layers and asks the viewer many questions, often ones that are very uncomfortable, while at the same time filling you with shock, awe and laughter by what they are prepared to do to get their point across – and how eagerly the North Koreans lap it all up. Mads Brugger does realise that he is also manipulative and cruel in forcing his comedians past their level of comfort and ethics – putting on a face for their hosts, while at the same time the North Koreans are being manipulative and cruel under the guise of helping and love for their guests and their Dear Leader. There are a few moments in the documentary where you think – no, there is no way – but there it is, unfolding out in front of your eyes.
The impact on Simon was heartbreaking. Seeing a “perfect” world where everyone is happy, beautiful and loved that he can never be a part of is so emotional and honest. Then to see how Mads continues to manipulate and force him to push forward is just as heartbreaking. It should be noted that Simon is the only one in North Korea who can speak their mind. Not only is he speaking Danish (their handler speaks English) but he is speaking “Spastic Danish.” So while Mads and Jacob are careful in what they say, even in Danish, Simon tells it like it is – the only time he dissembles is in English and in letters. You laugh as Mads deliberately lies as he translate, but at the same time you squirm on the inside.
The manipulation of the North Koreans knows no bounds. From a bus load of pretty girls for the boys to picnic with to totally redoing their comedy show including patriotic sentiments and hiding Simon’s disability, it leaves you gob smacked. Watching though, it is impossible to forget that these people’s lives, and those of their families, depends on making this work to make North Korea shine. I do have real fear in my heart for the North Koreans involved, especially Mrs Pak. Then you think about the entire population of the country – living in fear, lies and mistruths – always watching what they do and say – even their children. It is no life to live like that.
The filming style.
Simon saving Mrs Pak.
Did they really think about the fall out back in North Korea?
This was my “life changing” moment of the festival – every year you want one – you don’t always get it – and this year I was beginning to think it was going to be one of those years where I picked the wrong movies. Then I saw The Red Chapel. It touched me in ways I can’t put into words – infact I have tears behind my eyes as I write this, then I will smile and laugh as I remember a particular obtuse moment. I have wanted to go to North Korea for many years, and have looked at various tours to go – but couldn’t bring myself to give my western currency to the regime… for the same reason I have never gone to Indonesia or Burma/Myanmar. After seeing this documentary I desperately want to go, while at the same time horrified by what I saw and what I would experience.