Brügger and his travel companions deliver a ballsy theatrical spectacle in a regime of terror. In the opening scene of his latest documentary, “The Red Chapel”, director Mads Brügger lies in bed in his North Korean hotel, dressed in robe and slippers and buried in a book by the Dear Leader, Dictator Kim Jung II.

Melanie Sevcenko
Sevcenco currently lives in Berlin, where she works as a freelance writer, and for several documentary film initiatives.

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But Brügger’s own voice-over quickly corrects the situation: in fact he is only pretending to read the book, because every day after shooting Brügger and his crew had to submit their tapes to a group of specialists to ensure that the content was full of nothing more than love and respect for the Dear Leader.

In 2006, journalist Brügger and his small Danish theatre troupe, The Red Chapel, were granted permission by the merciless North Korea regime to enter to the country as part of a cultural exchange and to perform at special events to selected audiences. That is at least what the North Korean officials thought they were permitting – and so begins the duality of Brügger’s hysterically bold doc-spectacle, all occurring in one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world. We follow Brügger and his two performers, Jacob Nossel and Simon Jul, both of whom were born in Korea and raised in Denmark, as they comply to the wishes and requests of their North Korean hosts – bowing to statues of the Dear Leader, sight-seeing with their motherly guide and translator, Mrs. Pak, while making everyone laugh and swallowing the propaganda.

Jacob and Simon try to come to terms with their ethnic roots at the same time as producing a satirical slapstick routine for a society that is apparently anything but humorous or humane. The duality of The Red Chapel is made possible by the language barrier: Jacob and Simon never learned Korean – they speak Danish and English. Jacob is also handicapped (a self-proclaimed spastic), something that means he was the only person who could speak truthfully on-camera as a result of his slurred speech impediment. As Brügger puts it, “If the Koreans were ever able to understand Danish, they would never be able to understand spastic Danish.” While Jacob boldly expresses his disgust for the surrounding culture, Brügger chimes in with overcompensating positive feedback. At moments it looks like Brügger’s sharp-shooting satirical weapon has been laid down for fear of and unease with the totalitarian society. This is a culture where political adversaries, intellectuals and free-thinkers vanish. And here is Brügger – with a spastic, a comedian and a film crew – traipsing through a surveyed, brainwashed and submissive society.

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Like Andrzej Fidyk’s Yodok Stories, The Red Chapel mixes theatre with political controversy. The Red Chapel is, however, closer to the outlandish absurdity of Lars von Trier’s The Idiots, in that Brügger and his crew insert subversive clowning into an unwitting society.

Brügger explains how their film could only ever be a bi-product of the restricted conditions in which they were shooting. Thus, their “purposely awful” parody performance had to be compromised when one North Korean director insisted he collaborate on the material. Even the dear Mrs. Pak encouraged the troupe to insert political propaganda into their show.

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At HotDocs a member of the audience accused Brügger of being biased towards North Korea. “Well of course I’m biased,” Brügger replied abruptly. With comedic poignancy, Brügger is not shy to be unsympathetic towards his hosts. Though the film does not come to a concrete resolution about The Red Chapel’s impact on the dictatorship, it is brave enough to admit its contradictions.

 


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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