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“The Red Chapel” is the year’s funniest and most dangerous documentary

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The Red Chapel

"Jacob, I have to lie," says the man, in Danish, "I don't dare do anything else." These are the unforgettable words of a producer-director from Denmark in The Red Chapel, a Sundance prize winner and the most terrifying comedy-documentary hybrid imaginable.

Director Mads Brügger and two Korean-born Danes are in North Korea, having agreed to put on a cross-cultural comedy show. Only they're not in the country to appease the Great Leader Kim Jong Il: they're in Pyongyang to make a secret documentary inside the evil dictatorship.

Every moment of this film is soaked in dread: the trio are under twenty-four-hour surveillance and accompanied at all times by handlers who understand Korean and English but, crucially, not Danish. The three will say something to their handlers in one language, often sucking up to their hosts, then say the opposite to each other in another language, all of it captured on cameras operated by their handlers.

Every night, the North Korean police review the footage and look for any signs of espionage. All it would take to expose them is for someone to get suspicious about all the Danish sidetalk, call in a translator and all three pranksters would be disappeared.

But they carry on with their stunt, a stunt which involves staging an intentionally unfunny performance to a baffled North Korean audience to provide cover for what they're really doing, which is to reveal the secrets of a country gone wrong. For added suspense, throw in the fact that one of the comedians is a teenage "spastic," as he terms it, often confined to a wheelchair.

North Korea, by the way, allegedly exterminates the disabled as a rule.

These clips from The Red Chapel give too much away for my taste, but perhaps you're not convinced that this flawed but ultimately worthwhile peek behind the curtain is worth checking out when it opens in limited cities later this month: