The Red Chapel

The Red Chapel is the name chosen by a Danish-Korean comedy sketch group that visits North Korea under the pretense of cultural exchange–ostensibly to perform comedic retellings of a Hans Christian Anderson story and an old Danish TV skit–but in truth to expose the stifled lives of the average North Korean, and find out more about what North Korea society does with their disabled citizenry. This is of particular interest to comedian Jacob Nossell, who has spastic paralysis. Many of the North Koreans they meet simply have no experience interacting with disabled adults.

Introduced to their handler, Mrs. Pak, she makes the common etiquette faux pas of not speaking directly to Jacob, but then bizarrely compounds her blunder by asking his companion if he is a baby. Once that awkward moment is out of the way, Mrs. Pak begins to smother Jacob with hugs and attention. Within hours, she declares that she thinks of Jacob as her son–no, more than a son!–and wistfully declares that she would like to live with him. People with disabilities are used to such hyperbolic declarations of love employed by new acquaintances to cover up their discomfort, but in this case there seems to be an element of truth to her tone; perhaps this is the only way Mrs. Pak can express a desire to leave. Indeed, as the film explains, Mrs. Pak and many North Koreans can only respond to questions about how they really feel about Kim Jong-Il by bursting into tears because they cannot trust their voices not to betray them.

Mads copes by pretending to join in the adoration of the Dear Leader but slyly insulting them, Simon by going with the flow. Only Jacob is unwilling to edit himself or participate in the groupthink exercises, causing panic among his cohorts when he flatly refuses to salute in the middle of a plaza filled with North Korean soldiers freshly whipped up into a patriotic fervor. Ironically, it’s his speech impediment that allows him to be the only one who can speak freely under surveillance, since the North Koreans can’t understand his speech anyway.

The punch line of their Danish skit, a joke about a spastic lady, keeps falling flat in their North Korean test audiences, and Jacob’s role in the show is systematically reduced to banging a drum and waving. The handlers don’t want him to speak or let on that he’s actually disabled; in their view, he should pretend to be an able-bodied person playing a handicapped person. (Similarly, the skits the duo had planned are axed in favor of standard issue propaganda.)

On their last day in North Korea, Jacob asks Mrs. Pak if he can meet “others like him”. She doesn’t know how to answer the question, so Jacob lets her off the hook by adding “next time I visit”. All smiles again.


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