”Red Chapel” chronicles the journey of documentarian Mads Brügger, as he uses two Danish-Koreans, one a comedian, the other a self-identifying “spastic,” as decoys so he can bring his cameras into Kim Jong-il’s notorious Hermit Kingdom and uncover the horrors of life in North Korea.
As is so often the case with documentaries, “The Red Chapel” succeeds mostly on the strength of its subject matter, but Brugger is to be commended for the clever, if morally dubious, charade he has concocted, getting two fellow Danes of Korean heritage to pretend to be a comedy troupe that is eager to visit their motherland.
Jacob Nussell is the "spastic" half of The Red Chapel, the name Brugger gives his faux comedy troupe in homage to a long ago Communist spy cell. Nussell, who presumably suffers from cerebral palsy, is an otherwise perfectly normal, bright, funny kid who just happens to lack the finer motor function of the unafflicted. But in North Korea, where children with most any disability quietly disappear, Jacob is a heartbreaking oddity who brings out the mother in any woman over the age of 40.
The main victim of this emotional manipulation is Mrs. Pak, the middle-aged North Korean guide/minder/watchdog—“ the caretaker of the virtual reality,” Brugger calls her--assigned by the local government to The Red Chapel. Watching the woman discuss her loyalty to the state or Kim, it’s hard to tell if she has drank the Kool-Aid or is just following orders to stay alive. It’s truly, deeply sad.
To Brugger’s credit, he acknowledges that he’s using Jacob just as much as the North Koreans are, but insists that he’s doing so for good and with Jacob’s full consent and participation. It may be a rationalization, but the man has a point, and unless you turn away, you’re complicit in his trespass.
Simon Jul Jørgensen is the other half of The Red Chapel, a beefy, easygoing, guitar-playing tattooed kid. When a representative of the state sees a rehearsal of the show The Red Chapel intends to perform for a North Korean audience, he guts it of anything distinctly Danish and structures the action to hide as much as possible any hint of Jacob’s disability. Needless to say, both kids are pissed.
The film’s primary weakness is that Brugger is so aggressive in his constant condemnation of Kim and North Korea. Yes, Kim is a monster, and North Korea has been home to unconscionable crimes against humanity. But the film is so much more effective when it follows the age old maxim “show, don’t tell.” Perhaps no moment captures this better than when the camera is trained on a group of small children who just keep clapping and clapping with rictus-like smiles on their faces. Bu the scary power of the moment is lost the moment Brugger’s narration points out the creepiness.
Despite Brugger’s over-the-top commentary, the film is still a fascinating, bleak, sad and humorous peek at what goes on in a totalitarian nation. As Brugger notes, “Comedy is the soft spot of all dictatorships.”
The Red Chapel opens Wednesday in New York City