Cover illustration by Jack Gaughan from Jeff Sutton's The Atom Conspiracy, 1963
The Red Chapel began life as Det Røde Kapel, a four-episode documentary miniseries that aired on Danish TV in 2006. I'm glad that director Mads Brügger decided to re-edit the episodes into a feature documentary - it makes for an interesting film with a unique premise. The Red Chapel is the story of Mads Brügger's efforts to put together a cultural exchange project with North Korea. That in itself isn't too weird, but there's more. Brügger's plan is to take two Korean-born Danish comedians (Simon and Jacob) to North Korea to perform for the people there. And their performance centers around flatulence, vulgar performances of Hans Christian Andersen stories, old Danish TV skits, and an acoustic performance of Oasis's "Wonderwall". Oh, and Jacob, one of the two comedians, has a serious physical disability (cerebral palsy, I think) that impairs his movement and speech.
That last bit is essential to what makes The Red Chapel work, in spite of its issues. All of the film of the movie was shot in North Korea (in a style very reminiscent of the Danish Dogme 95 directors) and all the footage was subject to examination and censorship by the oppressive North Korean government. Brügger anticipated this issue, so he relies heavily on Jacob to deliver most of the frank commentary on what's going on, as the North Korean handlers could not understand his "spastic Danish", as he calls it. As Jacob, Simon, and their director submerge themselves in the mind-boggling isolationist madness of North Korea, Jacob's freedom to speak is one of the film's best assets. Less successful is Brügger's pedantic voice-over, which he may have felt he had to add to explain the pieced-together post-censorship footage. But he goes too far, ascribing hidden thoughts and secret motives to the North Koreans without any support for his assertions. It's pretty heavy-handed and unnecessary - there are plenty of surreal and creepy moments in the movie as it is.
For anyone familiar with accounts of visits to North Korea, the sight-seeing excursions the Danes are taken on will not be new, and the stock footage of North Korean military and cultural exhibitions are filler at best, but Brügger adds some fun twists by constantly challenging his Korean handlers. In front of the much-revered statue of Kim Il-Sung, Brügger obtains permission from his handlers to recite "What Love Is Like" by the subversive poet Piet Hein (spoiler alert: it's like a pineapple). On a trip to the Ministry of Culture, Simon and Jacob present a functionary with a fancy pizza spade that is intended as a gift for Kim Jong-Il himself. Simon leads a group of North Korean girls in a singalong of "Hey Jude" at a picnic.
Brügger is not the only one playing games, though. The North Koreans have their own fairly transparent motives, seeking to exploit the Danes' visit for propaganda purposes - they can show that they do not persecute the disabled as they have often been accused of doing, and they can use Simon and Jacob's visit as a jab at South Korea, the country that gave them away as children. Simon and Jacob appear to be happy to go along for the ride at first, but they become increasingly alarmed at how Brügger and the North Koreans are using them as pawns. This is most apparent in the transformation of Simon and Jacob's planned performance, which Brügger happily lets the North Koreans twist to their own agenda - in the end it just proves his point about them. The give-and-take between the comedians, their director, and the North Koreans is the key element of The Red Chapel, and provides a more nuanced counterpoint to Brügger's skewed narration.
In the end, Brügger seems frustrated that his efforts don't reveal the poisoned black heart of North Korea, but I think that he's undervaluing what he was able to capture on film. Jacob and Simon are very sympathetic and intelligent stand-ins for the audience, and you have to feel for them as they are exposed to events of an ever-escalating strangeness. The final performance of the revised cultural exchange stage show is very surreal, as is the Koreans' reaction to it. The Red Chapel is not the scathing exposé of North Korea that Brügger was obviously hoping for, but it works just as well as a humorous and surreal ordeal of two young comedians navigating between two sets of handlers trying to make a political statement.
"The Comedians" by Elvis Costello