The Red Chapel

Mads Brügger

Denmark, 2009, 1h 28min.

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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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