The Red Chapel (a J!-ENT DVD Review)

October 31, 2011 by  

Shocking, incredibly risky but yet highly entertaining! “The Red Chapel” gives viewers an inside look of life in North Korea but how director Mads Brügger and his two Danish comedian stars manage to pull of this documentary stunt is amazing!  Definitely recommended!

Images courtesy of © 2011 DR. All rights reserved.

DVD TITLE: The Red Chapel (Det røde kapel)


DURATION: 88 Minutes

DVD INFORMATION: Color (1:85:1), 16:9, Danish and Korean with English subtitles

COMPANY: Kino Lorber



Directed by Mads Brügger

Produced by Peter Engel, Peter Aalbaek Jensen

Cinematography by Rene Johannsen

Edited by Rene Johannsen


Mads Brügger

Simon Jul Jorgensen

Jacob Nossell

Combining the muckraking spirit of Michael Moore with the confrontational comedy of Borat, THE RED CHAPEL is a one-of-a-kind documentary that reveals the injustices of North Korea with a hilariously dark wit. In this Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning film, a trio of Danish comedians, who call themselves “The Red Chapel,” pretend to be regime sympathizers and mount an absurd variety show in Pyongyang. This stunt is led by the acerbic director Mads Brügger, and assisted by Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell, two performers of South Korean descent. Constantly shadowed by their guide, Mrs. Pak, they fake allegiance to Kim Jong-il and hope for “One Korea.” Only Jacob is allowed to speak his mind. Suffering from cerebral palsy, his halting speech is impossible to translate, so he insults his socialist hosts and receives smiles in return. The Red Chapel is an unconventional, hilarious and damning peek into a totalitarian nightmare.

Shocking, incredibly risky but yet highly entertaining! “The Red Chapel” gives viewers an inside look of life in North Korea but how director Mads Brügger and his two Danish comedian stars manage to pull of this documentary stunt is amazing!  Definitely recommended!

Mads Brügger, known in in Denmark as a filmmaker and TV host who has created documentaries such as “Dane for Bush” and most recently for “The Ambassador” is known for creating “The Red Chapel” (Det Røde Kapel), winner of “Best Foreign Documentary” at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and “Best Nordic Documentary” at the Nordisk Panorama 2009.

As American films such as “Borat” is known for pulling the wool on people’s eyes through its comedy, Mads Brügger goes even further, not just for comedic sake but also to expose the nature of a country through incredible risk.

In the case of “The Red Chapel”, filming a documentary in North Korea and to highlight the injustices of the country and also mock the regime.

But because of how North Korea is strict towards foreigners and everything is under observation and there is no freedom but also the chance they can very much get killed for attempting to film a documentary in North Korea, Mads Brügger knew the only way he can pull this off was to come up with a plan that wouldn’t raise suspicion to the isolated inhabitants (note: North Korea has government controlled television sets and people living in the country have no true access to entertainment to television or film from other countries and if they are are caught tampering with their TV sets or trying to watch other entertainment from other countries, one can be executed or forced to hard labor in camps).

So, Brügger comes up with a plan that he will be the manager of two Danish Korean comedians who will be known as “The Red Chapel”.

One is Simon Jul Jørgensen and the other is the disabled Jacob Nossell (Jacob has cerebral palsy).  Also, both men who do not work together shared the similarity that they were both born in South Korea and adopted and raised in Denmark.  Neither speak Korean but needless to say, it would peak the North Korean’s interest.  Also, Mads Brügger would name the duo “The Red Chapel”, not because it sounded socialist but secretly, the name is from an actual World War II spy ring in Nazi Germany.

Brügger presented the DPRK as a “homecoming” visit for the two Danish comedians of Korean descent who would perform a comedy piece for North Korean audiences.  Because North Korea is known to terminate mentally disabled children and only people dedicated to the government can live in the city of Pyongang, Mads Brügger knew that this could be an opportunity for North Korea to to use their visit not to just bridge a relationship with Denmark but also to show that North Korea’s attitude towards mentally disabled people is not as negative as the west makes it out to be.  And the North Koreans granted Brügger two-week access to document their experiences on film, but the government would be allowed to review all footage each night.  Also, the three would be monitored outside of their hotel rooms.

So, the rouse begins with the three arriving to North Korea (and a fourth and unseen to the camera, their cinematographer, Rene Johannsen) and immediately they are assigned a guide named Ms. Pak, who is also observed by two others to make sure that these three are not spies and are indeed coming to North Korea to put on a performance.

While Mads Brügger will go under the guise as the comedian’s manager and their Danish to English translator for Ms. Pak, the film will focus the emotions of Jacob Nossell.  Because he speaks spastic Danish due to his cerebral palsy, filmmaker Mads Brügger is taking a risk that no one will understand him but also to see the film and their experience through the Jacob. Even if Jacob himself is condemning the North Koreans in front of their face, knowing they don’t understand him.

Using the comedians as a way to gain access to North Korea and to film around the country, it will give Brügger the chance to condemn North Korea in his documentary.  But to carefully create the documentary knowing that North Korea will scan through all footage to make sure that their is nothing that would hurt the country.

But all is not easy especially for Jacob as he does not like how the North Koreans are faking their kindness to him because he disabled (Jacob knowing that North Korea terminates their mentally disabled children) but how the North Koreans try to use them for their own propaganda to refute the notion that North Korea is bad towards those who are disabled.

And the fact that there are no mentally disabled people anywhere to be seen, Jacob realizes that what he has heard about what North Korea has done to mentally disabled children is most likely true.

But while they try to keep their intentions hidden, they must perform in front of many North Koreans under their rules and their style that would benefit and please their supreme leader and the North Korean people.

But as the three pretend to be North Korean regime sympathizers, can the three continue to keep up their act and leave North Korea alive?


“The Red Chapel” is presented in color (1:85:1).  Mads Brügger could only depend on his cinematographer and editor Rene Johannsen to capture the footage and the film was digitally shot.  Picture quality is very good for a documentary and for the most part, the audio is clear and understandable.


“The Red Chapel” comes with Lorber Films trailers.

 Mads Brügger is one brave Danish filmmaker.  Sure, we have seen Sacha Baron Cohen pull some crazy stunts with “Borat” and “Bruno” for the sake of comedy, but Mads Brügger is not going after individuals, nor playing it safe by focusing on people in Denmark or America, “The Red Chapel” has Brügger literally trying to expose and denounce North Korea while being there with his two Danish Korean stars.

The documentary is hilarious, shocking but also very uncomfortable as you know these individuals, if found out, they can literally be killed or forced into hard torturous labor for the rest of their lives.

But his documentary depended on disabled comedian, Jacob Nossell.  To use his disability and knowing that not many can understand his English but also the fact that he speaks spastic Danish, which Mads Brügger can understand.  And through Jacob, we learn how difficult the whole process was for him to be in North Korea.

Especially in one scenes because North Korea is not used to seeing mentally disabled people, because the government feels a bit uncomfortable of Jacob’s presence, they request for him to pretend his disabled and jump out of his wheel chair at times to show that he is normal whenever he is in public or at performances.

But Jacob is sharp and knows that not only is North Korea using him for their propoganda purposes, he knows that Brügger is using him for his documentary and he begins to get angered as he would tell Brügger of how uncomfortable he is and when the North Koreans ask what he is saying, Brügger would say something much more kind.  Which is probably smart as Brügger knew the risk that if they found out the truth, especially knowing that Jacob saying negative about the regime can hurt them, he had to play this off as the middle man perfectly.

While the film does not capture anything illegal by the North Koreans, Brügger narrates the portions about the empty roadways, the devoid of people walking the city streets of Ponggang and talks about the injustices of the North Korean regime.  So, while they did get access to North Korea, unfortunately there was no polemicizing that can be done by Brügger because their hands were literally tied behind their back.

If anything, the film depends a lot on Jacob’s emotions and fears by the deception he feels on both sides.

There are no normal citizens that the three have access to.  Everything around them are government appointed.  From their guide, Ms. Pak to the cheerleading team who are assigned to star with the comedians for their live performance.

For westerners who are not so familiar with North Korea, they will probably be surprised to see a scene in which both Brügger, Jacob and their guide Ms. Pak are told to take part in an annual demonstration against the United States for splitting North and South Korea (North Koreans have been raised in believing that the U.S. was responsible for splitting the two countries, when in fact it was North Korea who attacked South Korea).  In fact, to showcase the propaganda of using Brügger and Jacob, the two are put in the front of the parade and the footage was televised.

Needless to say, “The Red Chapel” is quite audacious and an enjoyable yet risky documentary.  While it’s not a documentary that is able to give freedom to Brügger to meet with citizens of North America or even for them to travel alone, it is rather unsettling because we know that Jacob is starting to lose it.  And whether or not his anger and depression of being in South Korea would reveal the true intention of Brügger.  Especially knowing full well that if their acts were revealed, more than likely these guys would receive harsh labor camp sentences or possibly execution.

But while not the most polemic documentary out there, “The Red Chapel” is clever, entertaining, hilarious and a bit shocking as well.

Definitely recommended!


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