The Red Chapel documents director Mads Brügger’s trip to Pyongyang with Jacob and Simon, South Korean–born comedians raised in Denmark (the former is a developmentally disabled teenager who describes himself as “spastic”). To the North Koreans, the trio billed itself as the Red Chapel, a Kim Jong-il–friendly theatrical troupe on a cultural exchange. Only the audience knows that the Red Chapel is actually a reference to Rote Kapelle, a Soviet spy cell that infiltrated Nazi-occupied Europe, and the “cultural exchange” is just a ruse to sneak a camera into this closed state. A Borat-like performance experiment with considerably higher stakes than anything Sacha Baron Cohen has yet attempted, The Red Chapel is primarily a document of the Danes’ struggle to stay undercover once inside, a mission branded by a fellow Danish comedian as “pure suicide jazz.” You get the sense that not even Brügger is sure how far this could go, until the first rehearsal of the group’s “show” (a nonsensical pastiche of amateur tap dancing, fart noises, selected scenes from The Princess and the Pea, and a suspiciously sincere cover of “Wonderwall”), when the North Koreans peg them not as spies, but bad performers. The double act increasingly wears on Simon and Jacob, and as Brügger insists that they barrel full steam ahead, The Red Chapel becomes an infectiously funny, gonzo glimpse into the sausage-making process of propaganda.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 29, 2010