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Cultural Exchange Gone Awry:

The Red Chapel
Directed by: Mads Brügger
Friday, November 12, 7:15 p.m.,
City Stage Theater
Sunday, November 14, 10:45 a.m., Thalian Hall Black Box Theater

Imagine this: Three Dutch men convince the North Korean government to allow them entry into its capital city, Pyongyang, to put on a comedy show as a “cultural exchange”—or in Korean terms, an image booster; anything to keep churning out happy-go-lucky propaganda. It seems rather far-fetched for foreigners to be welcomed into “The Hermit Kingdom,” a militarized nation that puts government and power over its people. Yet, journalist Mads Brügger managed to cross that blurred border with the help of his friends and comedy troupe The Red Chapel, made up of Simon and Jacob, both of whom were born in Korea but adopted by Dutch parents.

An even more interesting twist to the story is Jacob: a self-proclaimed “spastic,” whose handicap and wheel-chair-bound movement prevents him none from being one of the smartest and bravest in the cast. North Korea, after all, would reject him, according to Brügger, as they do the handicap, the weak, the elderly—anyone, really, who isn’t “worthy” of true citizenship. According to Brügger, though never shown or officially confirmed, said people are sent to camps set up across the country, apart from society. Here, they undergo rigorous injustices from intense labor to starvation to eventual death.

Sound familiar?

Director Brügger makes no bones about comparisons to Nazi Germany throughout this astoundingly touching and raw documentary. Within its 88-minute time frame, audiences are shown a desolate, propaganda-driven and authoritative North Korea, under the totalitarian regime of Kim Jong-II. He is referred to as Dear Leader from his robotic citizens, who are expected to praise everything of the man and their country 24/7. Patriotism gets lifted to all new heights in “The Red Chapel,” as we meet Mrs. Pax, an overzealous government official assigned to escort the men during their stay and monitor the movie through its every shot. Mrs. Pax represents the model of a brainwashed North Korean: She dotes on everything about her country, smiles as if its empty streets are bustling with commerce and happy communities, and she cries at the Dear Leader’s statue with a force so magnifying, it’s unclear if she truly is devoted to him or only frightened by the atrocities done to her fellow man. Mads Brügger is privy to point this out in the film, as well as challenge everything for which the country stands in very acerbic ways.

Since the Koreans had to approve the film’s dailies to ensure nothing misappropriated their society, Brügger, Simon and Jacob spoke Dutch in many scenes, revealing glaring insights into the maddening circumstances of North Korea, unbeknownst to the officials. In fact, Jacob is the only one who talks freely in English because his speech is so muffled and hard to understand, no one can barely make out what he’s saying. The emotive depth of the film comes through in his every scene. Jacob portrays great bravado by refusing to partake in the manipulative and forthright lies of Korean culture, such as saluting during a march and national ceremony that blames the US for dividing Korea, though the UN made the call.

Without a doubt, “The Red Chapel” soars because of the spastic, especially when watching his emotional breakdown. He has real prowess and compassion as he acknowledges the callousness taking place in his “homeland.” He also knows he’s being exploited on multiple levels: 1) from the Koreans, especially Mrs. Pax, who smothers Jacob in attempt to “show acceptance” of anyone; and 2) from Brügger who realizes Jacob’s role in making the film is pivotal, regardless of the danger lurking right around the corner.

The show the comedy troupe attempts to put on becomes something altogether different from what the Dutch had intended. Yet, the result proves a mind-blowing affirmation to what this nation best portrays: control. The Koreans only allow the performance to be representative of their culture; not once do they give a nod or a wink to the purpose of “cultural exchange” by allowing Danish jokes or references to stay put. They willingly reveal exactly what Brügger expects: “One nation. One life. One Korea,” something even required of Simon to say at the end of the show.

Though the film comes heavy with truths no one wants to believe and revelations lingering with inhumanity, it doesn’t come without a few unethical moves by Brügger himself. The fact of the matter is, the filmmaker is willing to march hell or high water to finish the project—under any constraints and with visceral fortitude no matter the consequences. In dealing with an autocratic nation, the documentary revels in staggering acumen and a slew of humor. A highlight: Brügger asking for a high-school band to back them on Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” something he says would make a perfect ending to the show.

Preposterous? Yes. Clever—or just dumb? Who knows. The entire documentary seems like a smart episode of “Punked.”

Brügger’s sharp wit and dry insight keep the pace of the film more compelling than any historical documentary on North Korea. Deservingly, it took Sundance’s World Cinema Jury Prize last February.

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