Let Your Seoul Glow: My Journey to Korean Cinema

This will be my last and final piece for the Korean Blogathon. It has been a pleasure to participate in it, and I can’t wait to watch a slew of the films that have been written about by everyone else! Thanks to everyone that put this together and to Martin for designing such a lovely page to showcase our writing! It’s been fantastic. So, in conclusion…..

I live in a city where everyone is obsessed with the motion picture industry. If you aren’t pitching a script or don’t have one on the backburner, then you’re on your way to a meeting or to meet with your agent. If not that, then you are location-scouting or bitching about budgets or other production issues. Yes, that’s right folks, I live in the Devil’s Playground- Hollywood, CA. I was born and raised here, and it’s what I know. Is it always what I enjoy? Not by a longshot. But it’s where I’m from, for better or for worse.

In any case, try as I might, I was unable to get away from the cinema. It was like the siren’s call to me, although not in the same way as everyone else. While I fought anything and everything cinematic up until college (I was going to be a social worker, dammit!), I was unable to distance myself from the silver screen any longer, and got several degrees in it- but all in theoretical writing. Not as useful as building construction per se, but I loved it, and still do.

Within my film education, I encountered several kinds of Asian cinemas from my professors- but never Korean cinema. So I became very fond of Japanese cinema, and Hong Kong cinema and different Chinese filmmakers. From there, it was all up to me. So, being a rather exploratory person, I dove in head-first and didn’t come up for air for a very, very, very long time.

The first filmmaker I fell for was Wong Kar-Wai. His films came highly recommended by a friend, and that friend could not have been more correct. They were beautiful, sensual, graceful and smart. Some were action-type films and still contained the afore-mentioned descriptions. Wong Kar-Wai sold me, and got me involved.

About the same time, I developed a keen fascination with the Japanese New Wave and wondered intensely why no one knew more about it or was writing more about it. From there, I found Kenji Mizoguchi and became deeply obsessed with his work as well. To compliment the highly sexualized New Wave and the historical-yet-feminist-tinged-Mizoguchi, I was then introduced to my first slightly Korean figure- Takashi Miike. While born in Japan, he was from an area that was dominated by Korean immigrants. In addition, his father was actually born in Seoul. Miike had multiple Korean connections, a fact I was not aware of until a little while ago. He was still, however, a Japanese filmmaker, more or less, and so I added him to my bundle. However, his style added to the New Wave and Mizoguchi really made the kettle start to boil.

Miike has been described as “controversial and prolific” (both of which he is) and his films have been described as being “perverse and extremely violent” and also “dramatic and family-friendly.” Watching Miike’s work made me interested in seeing what else the Asian world had to offer.

Takashi Miike's film "The Happiness of the Katakuris" (2001) was a remake of the Korean film "The Quiet Family" (1998) by Kim Ji-woon

It was not until much later that I became aware of Korean cinema and what it had to offer, but I have to say that the previous films mentioned were the items that whetted my appetite. J-horror and all of its various offerings was starting to get a little repetitous, tragically, and I was not always a fan of how perverse Miike could get. Or at least not his methodologies. It wasn’t my bag, baby.To quote Huey Lewis and the News, I was in the cinematic mindset of: “I want a new drug.”

And lucky for me, I found one: Korean cinema. While doing my research and writing for this blogathon, I remembered that the first Korean film I ever saw was Tell Me Something (1999). To be honest, I have to congratulate Chang Yoon-hyun. While I may forget things about movies I saw last week or last month, I saw this movie over 10 years ago and it still stuck with me. I have thought about the film over the last few years, not remembering the title, but vaguely sure of the storyline and definitely remembering the imagery, and always thinking: “Damn. I need to find that movie and see it again.” So thanks, Chang Yoon-hyun. I’ll be making that purchase soon.

"Tell Me Something" really told me something about Korean cinema...

Continuing onwards, what I have discovered about this country’s cinema is that it has the unique ability to pull the rug out from under me in every single movie I have seen. Just when I think I know what’s going on, I don’t. I can’t think of another country that does that as well as Korea. Really, sometimes the content itself pulls the rug out from under the viewers feet. Look at Oldboy!

But that is what I like the most about Korean cinema and why I cannot stop watching it. My good friend (and fabulous writer) Dennis Cozzalio just recently pointed me in the way of a Korean cinema in my city. The CGV. It looks great. Some American films with Korean subtitles and recent Korean films with English subtitles. It’s got a little cafe, apparently, and I happen to know that it is surrounded by really great (and inexpensive) local food establishments. I’m sold, hook, line and sinker.

When I saw Mother (2009) and Memories of Murder (2003) on a double bill at the New Beverly Cinema, all I could think was that Good Suspense Films had returned to the silver screen. Alfred Hitchcock would be proud. I could just imagine him, sitting in the back, smirking away. I was astounded at how good they were.

July 6, 2010- New Beverly Cinema, Los Angeles, CA

Every time I see a new piece of Korean filmmaking I am blown away. I’ve seen Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw The Devil twice now, and I finally feel like I may be ready to write something coherent on it. It’s a pretty fascinating piece to me. I think what I am seeing come out of Korea is what Japan has not been able to do for me. There is something unexpected, every time. And living in a land where I have come to call almost everything in every film I see, it is a more than welcome facet to a film.

In addition, the humor makes me happy as a bird in springtime. It is so damn dark. This is a characteristic that I find endearing. Here in the US we find cynicism and sadism enjoyable, especially in our “dark” humor. I find that pathetic and super unfunny. I’m not a fan of Todd Solondz. I think he intentionally tortures his audience. But the Korean sense of humor comes from a pretty nasty history anyway, so why not laugh? If one looks at the random aside comments that are made in certain films, or the things that we are asked to find funny…not everyone I’ve been in the theater with has laughed, but I think that they are being played for fun. Almost all of the films that are serious films have a great deal of humor in them.

I know I’m new. I know I haven’t seen everything. But you know what? I’m really damn lucky.Now I get to go and watch all these other films that all the other folks in the blogathon have written about (and ones I’ve found while I’ve been researching for my writing) for the first time. And to me, watching a film you’re really excited about for the first time is like kissing someone you are really attracted to for the first time: you can only do it once, and it is destined to be amazing, even if it might seem a little sloppy at first.

I’m glad that I started out with my background in the Japanese New Wave and ghost stories, John Woo, Wong Kar-Wai, Miike, and all that. It was great stuff. There are aspects within those cinemas (especially horror-wise) that are shared. However, I am mostly glad to have seen those films/those cinemas so that I can appreciate  the Korean cinema on its own terms.

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The Politics of Solitude: Oldboy and Korean Noir

This is my second entry for the Korean Blogathon. Enjoy!

When I asked a friend why he thought Southern Korean cinema seems to offer so many films based upon the theme of revenge, I got a much different answer than the one I was expecting. Most people I know simply chalked it up to the North/South Korea thing, which was fine. I get that. No big deal. Really, as one of my girlfriends stated, you’d want revenge too “when half of your extended family probably died of starvation or were put in a work camp making asbestos-covered paper flowers for French weddings.” But I was personally of the opinion that the revenge thing couldn’t entirely come from the schism. There had to be more. And, as it turned out, I wasn’t altogether wrong.

While I did think that the Northern/Southern Korean explanation was too much of an easy way out of explaining the severe proliferation of violent and vengeful films, I was unprepared for my friend’s other answer. It seems that Southern Korean filmmakers use revenge as a trope in a way that is similar to how US filmmakers have done in the past. He noted that the contemporary South Korean attitude is one of complete and total self-reliance due to massive distrust of authority figures. In essence, if something needs to get taken care of, the individual takes care of it themselves, as almost every professional agency is seen to be corrupt in some regard. Director Bong Joon-Ho corroborated my friend’s statement when interviewed about his film The Host. Bong states, “It would seem that only the little guy and his family have the best interests of Seoul at heart — the government could care less.” (1)

What struck me most about this was that, beyond these directors’ desire to align their main characters with a kind of  “everyman/little guy” mentality, their primary focus still remains in underscoring the fact that Joe Everyman is a very lonely place to be, existing more readily in a location of solitude and self-sufficiency than any kind of communal wealth. In doing so, they inadvertently have made it so that nearly every single one of their Revenge Films feature what is, essentially, the perfect noir protagonist (2). Like the noir guys of yesteryear, the male heroes of Korean cinema tend towards a violent methodology and don’t listen to anyone but their own inner voice. Of course, this may also have a lot to do with the fact that the outside world has seriously messed with their existence and thus their entirety is now dedicated to getting back at those that ruined their lives, but who knows?

Like Glenn Ford in The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953) or Cliff Robertson in Underworld U.S.A (Sam Fuller, 1961), South Korean cinema is populated with characters whose main goal in life is to even the score with the figures who caused them the greatest pain without any help from a higher authority source. In the American and Korean films, the heroes chose to take matters into their own hands…with markedly different results. But they are also markedly different countries. That said, what should be noted is that both of these groups of films (American noir and what we will now call Korean noir) indicate a severe distrust of authority/authority figures. While films like Heat and Underworld were directly correlated to American political contingencies, revenge films within South Korea are a very specified and specialized kind of noir that is reflective of South Korean political culture and climate. In order to clearly see how South Korea looks at its own people and develops its own noir, looking at one film in particular may give us a more conclusive feel.

OLDBOY: Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone

Noir extends beyond a mood and beyond a time. It is not a genre and it is as complicated as a chess board made from a silken spider’s web…and just as sticky. Park Chan-wook’s film, Oldboy, was released in 2003 as part of his “Vengeance Trilogy.” I would argue that this film fits the category of Korean noir perfectly and that the political discourse being laid out could be seen as somewhat revolutionary and yet not extraordinarily unusual in that respect for the highly volatile country of South Korea. While Oldboy‘s sibling films also work for a discussion of Korean Noir, I feel that the overt visuals and meticulous aural planning make this the primary film of importance within the threesome.

In one of my favorite essays about the environment of film noir,”No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir,” the author describes the protagonist as never actually being able to fit the word “hero” due to the shape of his surroundings. He says that “his world is devoid of the moral framework necessary to produce the traditional hero.” (3) If that description doesn’t fit Oh Dae-Su’s world to a T, I don’t know what does. As the film begins, the poor guy is just drunk and in the police station, having been done for being drunk in public. His pal comes to get him, they make a tragic last phone call to Dae-Su’s family, and…the alcohol takes over, leading Dae-Su to take off from the phone booth. The next thing he knows? He is trapped in a hotel room for the next 15 years, and he has no idea who put him there or why.

While the meat of the film may take place outside of the hotel room, post Dae-Su’s “escape,” that 15 year period is not to be ignored. Within his room/cell, he is allowed a very essential piece of information: a television. This media object serves as his sole escort- historically, sexually, and socially. We watch as he communes with soccer games, dance shows, and intensely important world events. Time passes and we are privy to his attempts at escape, all the while the screen is split, and we get to see the political changes taking place or the death of Princess Diana on the right while Dae-Su is trying to dig his way out on the left.

As Henry Sheehan so deftly notes,

Dae-su’s imprisonment begins in 1988, the last year of the rule of Chun Doo-hwan, a brutal and murderous military dictator who ruled South Korea with the help of a secret police force, intimidation, indoctrination, and all the tools of a modern authoritarian state.  Dae-su has a television set in his cell, so he is able to watch political developments more or less as they occur.  But they come at him in the weird, leveling flood typical of TV images.  The return of political dissident (and future president) Kim Dae-jung, for example, is given no more (and no less) emphasis than the wedding and subsequence death of Princess Diana.  Dae-su’s greatest television fixation is reserved for a young singer he seems to regard as his lover, but most of the time he flicks from channel to channel.  Politics and sex, both a factor of imprisonment,  get all mixed up in the gently pulsating beam. (4)

While we recognize what is going on in these initial diegetic circumstances , it is also integral to recognize where Oldboy itself comes from. Not unlike The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Maltese Falcon, or other famous films noirs, Oldboy had literary beginnings. Oldboy was borne out of a comic book written by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya. If those names don’t sound Korean, it’s because they’re not. They’re Japanese. Started in 1997, this 8-volume manga was bought in 2005 by Dark Horse to translate and then distribute in English due to the immense popularity of Park Chan-wook’s film. Although widely considered to be a comic with a noir-like storyline, the Japanese version of Oldboy differs from the Korean film greatly. While one might say that this is due to simple translative book-to-film issues, I would argue that with this property, it goes deeper.

Historically, Korea became annexed by Japan in 1910, making it part of the Japanese Empire. It remained so until the end of World War II in 1945, when Korea became what it is today, divided into North and South. Those kinds of scars don’t easily heal. One possibility with Oldboy is that Park Chan-wook saw the manga, saw the capacity it had for expansion, and simply lifted it, just wishing to use the narrative elements in an artistic manner. However, there is far too much political content within his film to argue such a thing. While these political elements are indeed gracefully hidden, they are most certainly there, making them seem just as much part of the storyline as anything else. Park Chan-wook’s ability to mask politics with characterization, music, and plot is nothing if not masterful.

When asked about the politics in Oldboy, the director’s response was coy. He said simply, “That is not what I intended. I can understand why people think that, and I have no intention of blocking that line of thinking!”(5) While this response may seem like a denial of having placed political messages within his work, Park Chan-wook’s relaxed attitude towards other’s people’s interpretations and his unwillingness to “get in the way” may tell another story. The heart of Oldboy does lay in a noir-like narrative, but the politics set the stage.

As Dae-Su’s story continues out of his forced isolation, he meets Mi-do, a woman who accompanies him on his journey to try to find the individual(s) who robbed him of his life. His involvement with Mi-do only leads him to more complications, and in the final face-off with the villain he discovers more about things in his past and Mi-do’s past than he ever wanted to know. Dae-Su sacrifices a great deal in order to make sure that Mi-do’s past never has to effect her in the way that his has caught up with him.

In this final scene, we witness Dae-Su, the man who has massacred people wildly and exacted the most horrific torture and revenge, is shown to be down on his knees in front of Lee Woo-Jin, the man who had imprisoned him for 15 years. Is he begging for his life? Not even a little. Dae-Su has shown that he cares nothing for his own existence. His body has pumped almost nothing but pure revenge since being released from that tower. No. Dae-Su is begging for the existence of Mi-do. Within this exchange, Lee Woo-Jin has said the most essential thing of all. Aside from threatening, Mi-do’s life, he said, flat out, “You’re notorious for not protecting your women.”

When Japan conscripted over 5 million Korean men beginning in 1939 for labor and a couple hundred thousand for the war effort, they also decided that they needed some ladies for “comfort.” They established brothels for their military men, and 51.8% of these “comfort women,” as they were known, were Korean. Due to the fact that Korea was under Japanese control, there was nothing that the men could do to stop this from happening. Thus, this became part and parcel of Korean history.

Dae-Su’s relationship with Mi-do is problematic, to say the least. She wants to make him happy, no matter what the cost to her is, even if it is physical pain during sexual intercourse. However, he knows that the emotional pain is on an entirely different registry. He will prevent this at all costs. It is almost as though through by using a Japanese text, Park Chan-wook is attempting to reinscript a new history for Korean women, one without the Japanese annexation and sexual slavery. Within this Oldboy, a film that is rewriting the comic through filmic means, the story is still relentless and painful, but Mi-do maintains dignity even if Dae-Su does not. In his final interaction with the heavy, he plays it so that she will never know her past. She will only know a future. To an extent, this is also a rewriting of Korea, over what Japan had attempted to do.

Dae-su’s final showdown with the man who organized his capture is of great import. It deals with a multiplicity of issues, but more than anything, it deals with matters in and around speech, image and control. The history of Korea isn’t far off from that storyline. While the details aren’t quite the same, both Dae-Su and Korea spent a decent amount of time being locked away, under someone else’s control. Then, upon release, they had to readjust, which still didn’t guarantee a happy life! In fact, in both storylines, there was a reasonable amount of violence, paranoia, and isolation. And at the end of the day, both Dae-su and Korea end up having to be split up into separate entities, with an indeterminate ending; hoping for a good conclusion, but based upon the previous visuals…it’s not lookin’ so hot for anybody at the moment.

While politics provide a solid foundation for Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, it is film noir that adds the ambiance and gives it the flavor. Park Chan-wook is a very meticulous filmmaker, from his casting right down to his costuming. The mood that was set for this film and the darkness of the piece, was not entirely due to the fact that much of it took place in what were supposed to be hidden or underground locations. To begin with, the entirety of the soundtrack was designed to play as much of a character in the film as each actor. Almost every track was named after a film noir. Whether it was In a Lonely Place, Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly or The Big Sleep, each track played a role in rooting the film in a kind of historical background where the protagonist of the film exists in a universe of alienation, solitude and nihilism. Additionally, many (if not all) of these tracks also had a literary background, similar to Oldboy itself. The soundtrack presents Oldboy as a fully formed and musically textured piece that asks you to look beneath the surface.  

Dae-Su, upon waking up in his confinement, begins to narrate the film via voiceover narrative. Now, if one were to take a survey of all the films noir that have voiceover narration…well, let’s just say it would take a long time to name them all. A voiceover is a very tricky thing. As an audience, you become automatically aligned with whomever is speaking to you and telling you the story. It is a fabulous way to curry favor for your main character, and especially if your main character is not so ethically or morally…favorable?

Oldboy does not begin with a voiceover, nor does it maintain as much of a strong presence throughout the film as it does in the beginning. As the film starts, we are simply watching Oh Dae-Su. But he is quite sympathetic. He’s just a drunk family man. Then we are drawn even closer to him through Park Chan-wook’s use of the voiceover after he has been captured and incarcerated. Indeed, it is at this point that some of the most basic notions of film noir become verbally expressed by Oh Dae-su  as he experiences 15 years of pure, unadulterated isolation.

Karen Hollinger notes that unlike other 1940’s genres, where the voice-over narrative is used primarily to “increase audience identification with the main character,” the narrative that is used in film noir is much less heroic. While there is certainly identification going on, the noir voice-over will “most often contain weak powerless narrators who tell a story of their past failures or of their inability to shape the events of their lives to their own design.” (6) While Dae-Su is able to express himself physically and seek out those who caused him harm, the continual voiceover seems to express how powerless he still seems to feel over the 15 years he lost (amidst other plot points). In truth, by the end of the film, the revenge that he has worked so hard to get falls more than a little flat.

Of the concept of revenge, Park Chan-wook said this:

The act of vengeance is a meaningless one. Killing the villain does not bring back the dead. Even the stupidest person knows that. But despite that, people are still captivated by a desire to avenge. And it’s not easy to walk away when the means are provided to “pay back.” [But on top of that,] vengeance requires a tremendous passion and energy. People have to abandon their other everyday activities in order to cling to that purpose only. Why do people want to devote their whole life to this meaningless, fruitless thing? Is this incomprehensible, dark passion the human characteristic, distinguishing us from other animals? (7)

Oldboy, like many films noir, is investigating what it is to be human while living within some kind of existential panic. Oh Dae-su’s solipsistic identity, caused primarily by the machinations of Woo-jin, the evil “puppetmaster,” created a humanity that was so far collapsed that it could only seek the kind of vengeance that Park Chan-wook is talking about. In the end, he truly does attempt to follow the film noir path. As Robert Porfirio writes, “set down in a violent and incoherent world, the film noir hero tries to deal with it in the best way he can, attempting to make some order out of chaos, to make some sense of the world.” (8)

 

(1) Interview w/Bong Joon-Ho, Rue Morgue Magazine #64, Jan./Feb. 2007.

(2) Noir scholars might insist that I refer to this as neo-noir based upon Oldboy‘s 2003 release date and noir’s temporal restrictions, but due to the fact that I see this film as referring to noir in its originating capacity and also due to the fact that it is existing within the confines of another culture and country entirely, I will continue to refer to it as “noir.”

(3) Porfirio, Robert G. “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Vol. 1. Edited by Alain Silver & James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 1998. 77-93.

(4) Sheehan, Henry. “Oldboy.” Film Criticism & Commentary. Accessed 3/9/11. http://henrysheehan.com/reviews/mno/oldboy.html

(5) Interview w/Park Chan-Wook by Neil Young for Neil Young’s Film Lounge-Park Life. Conducted during the Edinburgh Film Festival, 8/22/2004. Accessed 3/10/2011. http://www.jigsawlounge.co.uk/film/reviews/neil-youngs-film-lounge-park-life/

(6) Hollinger, Karen. “Film Noir, Voice Over, and the Female Narrative.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight, 1998.

(7) Interview w/Park Chan-wook by Carl Davis. “Oldboy Director Disses Vengeance, Looks Toward Upcoming Cyborg-Teen Comedy.” 8/22/2005. Accessed 3/11/2011. http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1508066/oldboy-director-finds-revenge-meaningless-looks-toward-teen-comedy.jhtml

(8) Porfirio, ibid.

transcscript of an interview with Park Chan-Wook, writer-director of
OLDBOY
conducted at the Sheraton Grand Hotel, Lothian Rd, Edinburgh
during the Edinburgh International Film Festival
on Sunday, the 22nd of August, 2004
between 10.00-10.30am

by Neil Young

Wonderwall: The Red Chapel and the Principals of Cultural Exchange

The Red Chapel is not what you would call a typically Korean film. I am using it for my first entry in the Korean Blogathon because I feel like it is far too important to go unnoticed, especially amongst people who have more than a passing interest in Korean Cinema.

The identity of Red Chapel has a semi-permeable membrane. Sometimes identifiable as a Danish picture, sometimes Korean, sometimes an amalgamation of both, this film has nationalism floating in and out of it like rubber toys in a kid’s swimming pool, creating a piece that is, above all, complicated as hell.

Directed by Mads Brugger (a caucasian Dane), and starring Simon Jul Jorgensen and Jacob Nossell (two adopted Korean Danes), this documentary tells the story of how the group of them traipsed into the hermetically sealed, totalitarian dictatorship of North Korea to perform a comedy bit/routine.

“Comedy is the soft spot of all dictatorships,” says Mads’ voiceover during the first 10 minutes of the film, and he is not incorrect. It is common knowledge that Hitler himself owned a copy of Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator, and was said to have loved it, and that was the film that made fun of the man himself! However, as Red Chapel moves forward, it becomes a harder and harder film to watch, and the comedy drains from it.

Reviews called this film a “more intelligent Borat,” and one of my best friends even acknowledged that, essentially, North Korea gets “Punk’d” within these somewhat harrowing 87 minutes. But I have a difficult time with either of these simplifications (even though I realize that my pal’s comment was just an off-hand remark). The reasons for my discomfort have to do with what I feel is a very tenuous situation that evolves within the film between the filmmaker, his actors (friends?), and the North Korean company that they keep/situations that they are in.

Jacob and Simon are young men who have been raised in Denmark virtually all their lives. It seems that they were given up for adoption by South Korean parents when they were extremely young, and have grown up in Denmark. While they are aesthetically Korean, they speak Danish and are, more or less, culturally Danish as well. In addition, Jacob is a self-described “spastic,” making language even more of an issue (even his English is subtitled).  Upon being approached to do this project, one could see how these young men would find it appealing. While North Korea has clearly not been even slightly part of South Korea for 50 years and counting, it is still close enough to these boys’ heritage for them to want to go back and want to investigate, dictatorship or not.

Oh North Korea…what a place! The Red Chapel is an incredibly important film because it goes behind the scenes of North Korea in a way that nothing has in many years. It is also crucially important because it dissects Korean individuals who have been once removed from their home country, and are asked to revisit not only their originating culture but also come to grips with aspects of their history that they didn’t necessarily know that would have to face or want to face.

While Korea was split into North and South in 1945, and the two locations could not be more distinct at this point, the simple fact is that the country used to be one and it is the location that Simon and Jacob both hail from originally. The most fascinating element of the entire film was that, while skewed to “expose the evil of the system” (as Mads’ voiceover states), the most evil was revealed through the smallest and most seemingly insignificant details. While we are told about people starving by the millions and the various tortures and death camps, it was actually Jacob’s total experience and the reappropriation of the comedy show that truly seals the deal.

While discussing all the North Koreans that they have been dealing with throughout the film, Jacob says sadly at one point in the film, “It’s psycho, cuz they’re all really nice to me.” While he’s right, it also made me wonder what his treatment in Denmark was!

The North Korean treatment of Jacob was gut-wrenching. First of all, they wanted to look good in front of the camera. Not only did they want to look good so that they could make their Dear Leader (Kim Jong Il) happy, but they did so in order to make North Korea look less like the totalitarian regime that it is. According to Mads, had he been born in North Korea and not in South Korea, Jacob would’ve been aborted or killed due to his disorders (spastic/cerebral palsy). His “specialized treatment” by their “handler” Mrs. Mak was not only completely unusual but also basically impossible in the Kim Jong Il Reign.

As the film progressed, and we were introduced to the comedy routine that Simon and Jacob were to perform, we were also introduced to what North Korea actually was. It became clear to me that the voiceovers by Brugger that told us of all the Kim Jong Il horrors were almost unnecessary when we saw what became of the show: it was ripped to shreds. The “cultural exchange” that Brugger kept discussing with the North Korean handlers that had been assigned to Simon, Jacob and Brugger became nothing but another form for North Korean propaganda. Big surprise, eh? Not only that, but they managed to marginalize Jacob’s character as well, frustrating the young actor and depressing him even further than he already was.

Mads Brugger commented over some stock footage of North Korean dancers that people in North Korea lost their identity to the totalitarian government of Kim Jong Il, their Dear Leader, and were nothing but pixels. This analogy fit the bill just perfectly. Within the new show, Jacob lost his voice and his agency and Simon became nothing but a robot for political discourse. Pixels, when put together, fit into a picture. This is exactly what the North Koreans were hoping to see happen. There was to be no cultural “exchange” within this particular experience. In a way,  the most disturbing part of the film was that Mads Brugger knew that this would happen and Jacob and Simon did not. Not only were they pixels for the North Koreans, but they were pixels for Brugger’s own political agenda.

At a particularly painful section in the film, Jacob spits out at Mads, “You have no moral scruples, do you Mads?” and, at that point, it is quite clear that he seems not to. There is always the chance that when they get back to Denmark it will be fine and good, all will be explained, and things will be peaceful again, but in a sense the director seems to be as much of a totalitarian as Kim Jong Il, just with Leftist ideals. Jacob spends a good amount of the film in pain, and is the one person who points out that the North Korea situation is not as simple as we think it is.

The beautiful thing about this film is that we are able to view the film through the eyes of two young Korean-Danish boys and one Caucasian Danish adult, and it seems that the outcome is more deftly complicated than when we started. One can argue that a totalitarian government is always wrong, and politically that is 100% correct. But what about the people?

Mads Brugger’s voiceover seems to be intentionally black and white, so as to lay out the “evil vs. good” arguments that many people in the world seem to be obsessed with. What balances it out is Simon and Jacob, the Korean youth, who see that experiences with human beings in a country make any black-and-white argument problematic and place it into a state of grays. North Korea has never been seen in this way due to the political nature of the country, and it is a groundbreaking move.

While it did not take place within the confines of the country itself, there was a cultural exchange that took place within the context of this film and the participants in it. When Jacob and Simon sing Oasis’ Wonderwall with a group of North Korean schoolkids you can see that these two young men have broken free of what they previously were in Denmark and reached a new identity that encapsulated their Korean-“ness” as well as everything that they were before. They regained whatever agency that the North Korean “handlers” had attempted to remove from them and reinstated it within themselves. The two young men that returned to Denmark were not the same men that went to North Korea, and that in and of itself is a big deal.

The Red Chapel is a wonderful film and, while it is alternately disturbing and emotionally wrenching at times, I found it to be highly worthwhile. If you get a chance, please please please put this on your “to see” list.