The Red Chapel
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Review by: Larry Thomas
You’ve heard me say more than once that one of the jobs of a good film is to take you someplace you’ve never been and / or are not likely to ever go. The documentary The Red Chapel brings you a front-row seat from which to observe the society, politics, and daily life in North Korea. Danish filmmaker Mads Breugger, under the guise of a cultural exchange event, manages to enter that country-under-wraps with a film crew and two young Danish comedians, Simon and Jacob, both born in Korea. The ringer is that Jacob is disabled… or as he calls himself, spastic. Since the Danes don’t speak Korean, and the Koreans don’t speak Danish, most of their communication is done in English. This allows the Danes to speak freely about what they observe without the Koreans knowing. And for our benefit, the entire film is subtitled, even the English conversations, so that we don’t miss anything.
Upon first observation, it might seem like The Red Chapel is an “ambush documentary,” like Borat. But that’s not the case. At the heart of The Red Chapel is a desire to expose the core of North Korea, under their “dear leader” Kim Jong-Il. Every thought, every action of all the citizens of this country is manipulated by the state.
When the crew gets to Pyonyang, and starts explaining the comedy and music routine that the young comedians will present to the Korean audience, a director from the state is appointed to micromanage the entire production…what’s said, what’s not, who stands, who doesn’t, how long the act should run. While in the backs of all our minds is how will North Koreans react to a disabled person in a country where it is said that those who are born disabled are isolated and exterminated.
Also muddying the emotional minefield of the journey is Mrs. Pak, the troupes chaperone. She may be working for the state, but is also a nice lady, who ingratiates herself with the boys and the filmmakers. Plus we get a sense of the real danger all may be in when they are taken to a huge anti-American rally and parade. Breugger must explain to Jacob that he must lie to the Korean handlers about what they really say and feel, as its important to their survival.
Breugger and his crew obviously do not have access to anything that could be critical of North Korea. But just as damning is the controlled orderliness in both thought and deed. While parts of the film are done with a wink and a nod, other parts are alternately quite moving and chilling.
The Red Chapel is the next presentation of Cincinnati World Cinema on Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 in Covington’s Carnegie Arts Center. There is a pre-show dinner program both evenings, with speakers who have logged time on the ground in North Korea. They will also lead the post-film discussions both evenings.
For more information about the film, the dinner programs, and Cincinnati World Cinema, visit www.cincyworldcinema.org.