Part of Stories of Women Section of the London East Asian Film Festival, this bizarre co-operation between Belgium, UK and North Korea is a little unusual gem. It has been screened with success in North Korea and it is the first North Korean Movie since 2003 to be screened in South Korea.
As explained by the 2 authors in the course of the following Q&A, “Comrade Kim Goes Flying” took a long time to be realized. 7 years ago, British documentarist Nicholas Bonner who had worked extensively in North Korea and Belgian director and producer Anja Daelemans had the idea that a movie of gentle propaganda, centered on a strong female lead assisted in achieving her goals by the collective working class could be successful not only in North Korea but also abroad, as opposite to the extremely unengaging (for non-North Koreans) classic boring propaganda films. Once the script was finally approved, with the help of North Korean Ryom Mi-hwa, they recruited director Kim Gwang-hun (they would have loved to give the role to a female director, but they don’t exist in North Korea) and 3 years later the finished product saw the light.
Comrade Kim Yong-mi (Han Jong-sim) is a smiling and positive-attitude girl, daughter of a coal-miner and awarded coal-miner herself, with a childhood dream of flying like the circus acrobats. She practices gymnastic in her spare time and occasionally improvises amateur shows to recreate her fellow coal-miners. Her pragmatic dad disapproves of her dreams though, as they distract her from the mining community goals, but when she is offered a position in the construction brigade in Pyongyang, he lets her go. Little he knows that Kim is very excited not only for the new job but especially because she will take the occasion to visit the National Circus in Pyongyang and see her favorite athletes. Once in the Capital, she even tries to audition for a trapeze artist position but her skills are way too amateurish for the circus and the star gymnast Pak Jang-phil (Pak Chung-guk) laughs at her. But Kim is not the kind of girl who takes a no as an answer and she quietly fits in the construction brigade, but with the goal of making smug Jang-phil change his mind about her.
Supported by the brigade and her friendly boss, and helped by her determination and irresistibly positive attitude, she manages to train with the colleagues and organize a collective acrobatic show in the construction site to demonstrate what determination and corporate work can achieve. Astonished by Kim’s acquired skills, Jang-phil convinces Kim’s father to let her join the Circus where she will be followed and taught by the best instructors. But the road to success is still long and full of challenges; will Kim be able to keep her positive attitude and succeed?
“Comrade Kim Goes Flying” manages to achieve the incredible task of pleasing the North Korean picky censorship and public, and at the same time appeal to a widest international audience. It does so through a clever and meticulous work of adding and subtracting little elements. It has subtracted the blatant representations of the Leader and the State that would have turned it unpalatable to most, and instead pumped up a notch the idea of the invincible working class and the power of collective efforts. They have added a female lead that is very uncommon in North Korean movies, and the idea that she is pursuing her own dream, disguised in the common goal of the National Circus excellence. With a further addition of few touches of comedy, while subtracting tears and love story (2 fixed features, as Bonner and Daelemans told us) the recipe is complete.
Like its heroin, the movie has a nostalgic charm to it, aided by the Technicolor cinematography and the unreal kitsch colour palette, vaguely reminiscent of 70s East European children programs or an animated propaganda poster, and the positivism that imbues the whole work is indeed contagious. Kim is a true mix of working class, girl-power heroine and, in times of rampant individualism I found really refreshing to watch a story that mentions things like proletarians working together and the forgotten concept of “the common good”. Nothing wrong with it, but let’s not go into that…
The 2 lead actors are two real life circus professionals and they have been taught to act purposely for the movie; the others are professionals but – obviously – obscure to non-Korean audiences. They are a cheery bunch, their perfect teeth smiles will have you reaching for sunglasses and their shiny nylon suits and dresses add a sweet naive touch to the mix. Another added value are the animated North Korean propaganda paintings that fill here and there some transitions of the narrative and few snippets of 20-year-old original footage of factories and building sites.