I’m a big North Korea fan. Oh, wait—that sounds very bad! I’m obviously not a *fan* of a repressive and dictatorial country, but I do find the fact that a Stalinist country survives in this day and age to be fascinating. I eat up facts about and tales from North Korea like E.T eats up Reece’s Pieces. Helpfully, MUBI has a troika of docuflicks on North Korea playing right now. This is one review in Film Misery’s mini-marathon of the films.
The Red Chapel follows three Danish comedians on a ‘cultural exchange’ trip to North Korea. Two of them were adopted from South Korea as children, with one of them being a self-described ‘spastic’ who, while not confined to a wheelchair, must make extensive use of one. The trip is a ploy, however; their main goal is to perform a pantomime for a large group of Koreans, which will serve as a metaphor for their sad lives in the totalitarian regime. Of course, they are not allowed to do this, and their handlers ensure the little play quickly turns into state propaganda.
Honestly, it was extremely difficult to sympathise with these guys. Judging solely by the material in the documentary, it seems they didn’t do any research whatsoever on what to expect in the Hermit Kingdom. Did they really not know the systemic injustice pervading the country? Did they really not know it would be in their best interests to display performative devotion to the Kims? There is one scene when Jacob (the ‘spastic’ one, as he says) expresses dissatisfaction that the Koreans are judging him for his slurred speech and uncoordinated gait. Duh. You’re not in the EU, where people likely wouldn’t notice or care. You’re in the DPRK, where you would have been aborted.
Worst of all, they ascribe motivations to Koreans that aren’t justified. Their handler, Ms Pak, frequently cries when discussing Kim Jong-Il, so moved is she with patriotism. The filmmakers say she’s actually weeping because of the huge Korean famine of the 1990s. What? What a non-sequitur! Ms Pak never seems anything other than genuine, and seems truly touched that this group of Europeans want to learn about her and her culture. It’s possible that the filmmakers saw things to lead them to this conclusion, but they don’t put them in the documentary.
I know that Pyongyang is a little like a communist Seahaven. But I don’t see any reason to assume that absolutely everyone is ‘in on it,’ and the The Red Chapel doesn’t provide any evidence of it either. It seems not a little disingenuous to criticise the Koreans for lying to them when they entire reason they went there was to lie to and subvert them. Ugh… I don’t really want to be in the position of defending North Korea. My only point is that, overall, The Red Chapel feels a bit slipshod and incomplete, and its conclusions aren’t supported by the footage presented.