There’s not too many Saturday nights when you get to visit the cinema for the purpose of watching a North Korean movie, but back in June on the eve of the Sydney Film Festivals final day, the opportunity arose to do just that, with their screening of ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying'.
The movie is a curious piece, and while the story behind it doesn’t involve any kidnapped South Korean directors (Shing Shang-ok) or forced into acting American military (Charles Jenkins – who authored ‘The Reluctant Communist’, strongly recommended!), it’s certainly no less interesting. Essentially the idea came from Nicholas Bonner, a British gentleman who founded Koryo Tours, a company which specializes in trips to North Korea. He also produced a couple of documentaries on the country, including the critically praised ‘The Game of Their Lives’, and so with the help of another producer, Belgian Anja Daelemans, they pitched the idea of a movie about a working class girl struggling to achieve her dream of being a trapeze artist.
The selling point was that they believed it could be a hit both on home soil and overseas, and in a stroke of luck, the well connected North Korean producer Ryom Mi-hwa took the bait. Mi-hwa went on to recruit North Korean director Kim Gwang-hun, who was know for his military themed propaganda productions, and so the trio of a Brit, a Belgian, & a North Korean got together to share directorial duties on what was to be the first North Korean co-production in over thirty years, and the first to be Western financed. Three years later, after several script rewrites demanded by the North Korean bureaucracy, and agreeing on various conditions being put in place (neither Bonner or Daelmans were allowed on set for the coal mine and steelworks scenes), the movie got the green light, and production began.
So, how is the final product? ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying’ is a brisk 80 minute journey into what feels like the glorious Technicolor movies of 1950s Hollywood. Most cast members have a smile on their face for the majority of their screen time, Pyongyang is a city were the sky is always blue, the glass a luminous green, and I doubt anyone would be surprised if the flowers uprooted themselves and broke out into song. Indeed the whole movie has the feel of a brightly lit excessively happy stage musical, with Comrade Kim herself constantly speaking in chirpily gasped tones at everything and everyone around her.
Real life acrobat Han Jong-sim plays the title character, no doubt chosen for not only having the physical talent that the role required, but also being just as attractive as any of the glamorous stars found in their Southern counterpart across the DMZ. She happily works away in a small coal mining town before being enlisted into the Construction Brigade located in the capital Pyongyang. While there Jong-sim learns that the acrobat who she’s always looked up to, played by Kim Un-yong, is performing in the city at the same time, and she makes it her mission to meet her idol. She does this with incredible ease, only to have Un-yong confess that soon she plans to retire, which results in our comrade aiming to become good enough to be her replacement. Un-yong’s male trapeze partner, played by Pak Chung-guk, has his doubts though, and so the stage is set for Comrade Kim to rise up against the challenges on the way to her goal.
Anyone familiar with North Korea won’t be surprised to hear that the way she does this is through the “glorious perseverance of the working class!” and other such declarations, as various cast members extol the virtues of the working class and how together they can achieve anything. Such announcements usually drew a lot of laughter from the audience, which of course, was definitely not the intention. It lead me to wonder if the DPRK really had any idea of how the movie would be viewed outside of its own borders, but regardless of its unintended humour, Bonner was obviously correct, as on top of Sydney it’s also been shown at film festivals in Canada, the US, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, South Korea’s own Busan Film Festival.
It’s easy to see why. Its short but sweet run time moves along at a pleasant pace in such an innocent, and dare I say charming, manner that there’s not much to dislike about ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying’. While movies like ‘The Truman Show’ embraced the idea of the post-modern movie with a knowing awareness, ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying’ is post modern without even trying to be, everything about it seems to be from some different era, and in many ways it is. For those that look for it, there are some brief moments which remind you that you’re very much watching a product of North Korea – when characters want to call each other, there are no mobile phones in sight, instead only rather outdated landline handsets, there is the occasional glimpse of the painted propaganda billboards in the streets, and for anyone whose ever seen a North Korean newscaster announce the news, the tone of the circus presenter will be very familiar.
Perhaps most of all though, my favourite part came when Comrade Kim takes a bus from her coal mining town home to the big city of Pyongyang, and as with any movie which features a country bumpkin going to the big city, there’s a scene were she glimpses the cities skyline for the first time. In ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying’, for me there was something strangely surreal about the skyline she finds herself gasping at in wonder being that of Pyongyang, and perhaps the audience as well felt her excitement as she stares in marvel at the pyramid like Ryugyong Hotel (still currently unfinished over 25 years after construction began!) and the imposing Tower of the Juche Idea. It’s moments like this, at sharing in an experience which we know we should never really have the chance to, which perhaps give ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying’ its greatest power.
By Paul Bramhall
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