DIR: Kim Gwang Hun, Nicholas Bonner, Anja Daelemans
Narrative | DCP | Colour | 2013 | 81 min | Belgium, UK, North Korea | Korean with English Subtitles
Sat, Nov 9 7:30 PM | Cineplex Odeon International Village Cinemas
“This is not a documentary,” iterated the film’s European co-producers via an e-mail read aloud by a VAFF staffer prior to Saturday’s screening. They also wanted to make it clear, “this is not a political film.”
Comrade Kim Yong Mi (played by professional North Korean circus performer Han Jong Sim) is a young, rural, working-class coal miner whose childhood dream was to soar through the air on a trapeze. When she gets transferred to a construction crew in Pyongyang, the first thing she does is sneak into the state circus to see her high-flying heroes. Before long, she too manages to score an audition, only to succumb to nerves and the cutting remarks of handsome circus star Pak Jang Phil (another real-life acrobat Pak Chung Guk). Back at the construction site, however, Kim finds her foreman (North Korea’s “George Clooney” Ri Yong Ho in a rare supporting role) and the entire work crew ready to help launch her into acrobatic stardom.
Comrade Kim Goes Flying marks a number of milestones for North Korean film, most significantly as the country’s first co-production with European filmmakers, namely Belgian Anja Daelmans and British ex-pat Nicholas Bonner, whose previous DPRK docs include soccer flick The Game of Their Lives (2002), and A State of Mind (2004), which explores the country’s epic choreographed stadium shows, the Mass Games. Comrade Kim was also the first North Korean film to be edited entirely abroad and to feature a female lead and “girl power” theme; all no small accomplishments considering the three years spent submitting and re-submitting the script for approval by state-run film studios.
Western viewers will instinctively sniff for the Europeans’ democratic fingerprints. The story of the arts transcending despotic regimes with literary tropes of individualism has, after all, become near-classic in recent years (The Lives of Others (2006), The Desert of Forbidden Art (2010)). Did Daelmans and Bonner somehow use their filmmaking prowess to outwit the Dear Leader’s thought police? They say no. It’s just a fairy tale. A romantic comedy. A fun cultural exchange resulting in something a little new and different for the Korean public to enjoy. For daring, undercover glimpses into a frighteningly bizarre and mind-bogglingly regulated dictatorship where forced labour, starvation, public executions, and constant surveillance reign, best look elsewhere. Yet as it turns out, even a glittery girl-power rom-com set can still be an eye-opening experience, especially when set in the world’s most enigmatic country.
“Who knew that North Korean grass is so green, and its flowers so pink?” quipped Variety’s Jay Weissberg at the Rotterdam Film Festival earlier this year. Indeed, the film’s 1960s Technicolor aura and plastic perfection make for a bizarre communist dreamland. Even the coalmine and steel mill—two sites to which Daelmans and Bonner were forbidden access—teem with grinning workers doing backbreaking labour, sufficiently rounding out the propagandist overcompensation and leaving one to only wonder if the state censors really (really?) believed the outside world would buy into the bubblegum. Then again, perhaps the most disconcerting scenes of all are the ones simply shot in street-level Pyongyang, which, while painted as idyllically as the rest, nonetheless haunt the Western viewer with endlessly insipid Soviet architecture, cavernous, marble-coated public buildings, and sterile, car-less thoroughfares.
As for the apparent dream-chasing, against-all-odds storyline, this also sidesteps any real conflict as Kim’s own plucky “rebellion” never actually encounters opposition beyond the bumbling circus doorman. With the entire working class rising to support her, the only real obstacles remaining for Kim were her own limitations, conquered, unsurprisingly, via a near-inhuman regimen of physical training.
The production credits alone mark this film a noteworthy cultural accomplishment, even as its messages sit firmly in the Stalinist camp. The Western fingerprints have also done well to attract Western eyes, and, while far from a covert glimpse into a tormented society, Comrade Kim remains a fascinating revelation of exactly what passes for entertainment in the DPRK, creating a nonetheless vivid glimpse into this shadowy regime.