Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Red Chapel: Mads Brugger's bad bet

Mark Olsen of the 'Los Angeles Times' got it right when he reviewed the Danish Mads Brugger's award winning 'Det Rode Kapel' at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival: he called it 'a prankish charade gone very wrong'.
Olsen was being too kind. Brugger's film is hardly a harmless practical joke. It is a cynical, calculating film to trash North Korea.
Brugger chose the title: 'Red Chapel' which all for the initiatied remains puzzling.'Die Rote Kappelle' [Red Orchestra] was a name the Gestapo gave to anti Nazi spy rings made up of Communists. So the choice of title, Brugger grandly confers the title of his 'plot' to subvert in the post modern sense North Korea.
Although Kim Jong il's DPRK is a harsh dictatorship, it is not a replica of Nazi Germany. It is open to criticism for sure and the world's rod has not been spared, it goes without saying.
Let's look at Brugger's bad bet to make North Korea 'laugh', through his stealth campaign of falsehood, outright lying, and using his two main actors as his pawns.
The documentary's plot is simple enough: Brugger wiggled an invitation for a cultural exchange of a two young man troupe from Denmark, to perform in North Korea.
The two are Korean born Danes who, born in South Korea, went to adoptive Danish families when they were less than a year old. Neither spoke Korean, and thought of themselves as Danes. One, Jakob Nossell,a spastic who has embraced his infirmity as a strength, is fluent in Danish and English, slurred speech notwithstanding, and exhibited a good intelligence; the other, Simon Jul, a much tattoo bilingual singer and comedian.
Clearly from the opening scenes, whatever Jakob's and Simon's comedic strengths, Brugger had combled together a third rate act, to carry out his ideological objectives. And the dialogue lead by him is betrayed by his two 'stooges' and by the North Koreans themselves.
Had Brugger come with two blond, blue eyed Danes, he might have pulled off his 'prank'.
Two Koreans who never know life other than in Denmark, is thrust on a North Korean reality. And both in their own way suffers 'culture shock' and relate to his 'Koreanness', and for the North Koreans, they, too, tried to claim them as their own.
Brugger, Jakob and Simon got the DPRK treatment for visitors, but Jakob and Simon got much more attention because they were of Korean birth. Brugger encourages to play along, keep a diary, lie if must needs be. Which the two do but Korea, however, speaks to a condition they never know they felt or had.
At the DMZ at Panmunjom, shown the room where North and South meet, Simon asks if he can walk over to the South's side, a Korea he never saw but where he was born, Jakob follows suit. And in that one scene, Brugger's whole design is torpedoed. It is scene charged with significance and emotion.
The duo's performance is recast to please North Koreans: it is obvious their act is hopeless and the director wants, among other reasons, to put a bright face on the Simon's and Jakob's talents. Not only that, Simon delivers with sincerity the wish of all Koreans: a reunified Korea. Jakob challenges Brugger: not hoodwinked by the North's wiles to win them over, he suddenly reminds him that everything is not all black nor all white as Brugger seems to believe.
Even though Brugger had to turn over his daily takes to his North Korean handlers, it is surprising that hardly anything seems excised, including Jakob's complaints of being stiffled and babied. Brugger operates on the theory that no one in North Korea understood Danish. Is he wrong?
Equally obvious is the North's willingness to show its beautiful face, but no warts. Brugger does remind Jakob that disabled people like him are 'killed'. And in a move to embarass his Korean handler, Jakob hopes he could see someone like himself. Her face betrays embarrassment, but good hearted Jakob says that maybe he can when he visits the North again. The disappointment on Brugger's face tells it all. Foiled again!, it seems to say. [In societies like Korea--North or South--the disabled are hidden from public view or abandoned and more likely neglected. The burden traditionally is on the family, not as in Denmark where the state or private agencies come to the rescue.]
The narrative is pure Brugger. It's full of falsity and occassinal truths. But more than that, it is so ocnfected to meet his no shadows script: North Korea bad, bad, bad. Jakob and Simon saves him and his film from himself and his ideologically driven script. And strangely enough, the North Koreans we see have a human face, something Brugger has no purchase.
Brugger is as rigid as a good Stalinist. And his whimsicality nothwithstanding, does not detract from our judgment.


  1. Mads Brugger has publicly used and abused the considerable hospitality of some perfectly pleasant people, including I think his star performers. He never for one minute looks the better for doing it either. He tells us that North Korea is Hitler’s Germany, and suggests that North Koreans are all monsters or stupid. They didn’t look that way to the camera.
    In fact none of his assertions was demonstrated on film. Maybe he didn’t feel it necessary, but I wouldn’t take US claims about its adversaries without a big pinch of salt myself. Even if he was right, he has grossly offended some decent and friendly people, and that just looks bad.
    This looks like David Bradbury’s ‘Fond Memories of Cuba’, where Bradbury keeps saying ‘You haven’t got much stuff have you ?’ to people on the streets of Havana. A hatchet job with no intention of informing.
    Unfortunately for both him and Mad Bugger is that we come away with a very bad impression of both of them. Unfortunately for the world’s sense of values, this whatever-it-was got the documentary prize at the Sundance Festival. Dear God in Heaven.