An extremely rare Western-North Korean co-production, Comrade Kim Goes Flying is an unlikely milestone. With its vibrant cinematography and screwball story about a young woman pursuing her individual dream in the face of community disapproval, it's both a vivacious romantic comedy and a testimony to its creators' determination: like their heroine, their story is one of trying to make the impossible possible, navigating unprecedented hurdles over six years to bring this sparkly vision of a seldom-seen North Korea to our screens.
One of those creators, co-director and producer Nicholas Bonner, is a guest of the festival and answered a few questions ahead of the film's first screening.
How did you get the opportunity to work on a film project in North Korea?
I have been living in Beijing since 1993 and during that time visiting North Korea most months. Prior to making Comrade Kim goes Flying I had worked on three documentaries on North Korean subjects with our North Korean co- producer Ryom Mi Hwa.
I met Anja Daelemans (Belgium producer and co-director) in 2003 and we started discussing the idea of making North Koreas first ever 'girl power' film, a universal story of an individual trying to fulfill her own dreams – which would be an eye-opener for North Korean audiences.
Anja and I both wanted to make this film primarily for a North Korean audience but one that would equally appeal to foreign viewers who would get to see a North Korean movie stripped of any overtly political messages. For the first time, the North Koreans would get to see a home-grown 'girl power' movie with a heroine who is not guided by the Party or its Leaders but follows her own ideals. The three of us – Anya (Belgium), Ryom Mi Hwa (North Korean) and myself (British) – decided to make the impossible possible!
What was the working relationship like with co-director Kim Gwang Hun?
We did not want to make a ‘euro mash’ film but rather a film in the North Korean style, but with a totally different story to what they have had before. Kim Gwang Hun had previously only directed war films and this would be his first romantic comedy, therefore we were introducing him to this new genre and getting himself in touch with his feminine side!
Almost all the film studios refused the script because it did not fit the North Korea trope (political and ideological storylines) but because Kim Gwang Hun’s father, also a director, had worked with Ryom Mi Hwa’s father, a cinematographer, his intrigue was tweaked and he agreed to work with us on the film. It was a true co-production and whilst it is respectful of North Korean film traditions, it pushes these traditions to their limits.
What is the North Korean film industry like?
The North Korean film industry was set up in 1948 to produce films to entertain but to deliver a strong political and ideological message. The first feature film produced in the DPRK was My Home Village in 1949 and since then they have been churning out films with the same message but under different genres, including military, drama, socialist reality, sport as well as occasional light comedy films. The heyday of North Korean films was in the 1970s and 1980s but over the past decade cinema attendance had been dropping.
Although not well-known abroad, the country does have a stable of actors and actresses considered ‘film stars’ and whose latest performances are eagerly awaited by their fans. Ri Yong Ho, our actor who plays the commander of the construction site, is the George Clooney of North Korea!
Every two years they hold the Pyongyang International Film Festival, which is the only opportunity North Koreans have of seeing contemporary foreign films. It is where Anja and I met and set off on this extraordinary adventure of making Comrade Kim goes Flying.
Do you think this is a controversial film for South Koreans, and Western audiences, to see?
As soon as we hit Toronto International Film Festival we have had terrific reception from audiences, but of course one of the tests would be to see what South Korean audiences made of the film. We soon had an answer, as within a few weeks of screening at the Pyongyang International Film Festival we were invited to screen at Busan International Film Festival in South Korea.
This was the first time that the South Korean government had determined a North Korean film to be "free from ideologies and propaganda". The South Koreans reacted to the film just like audiences around the world – laughing, falling in love with Comrade Kim and supporting her in fulfilling her dream – but with the added emotion that this was a film that connected them with the North. Perhaps it is summed up by one South Korean who stood up after the film and said “It’s nice to know that mothers-in-law in the North are the same as they are in the South!”
And in North Korea, how was the reception there?
The film had its premiere in September at the Pyongyang International Film Festival, where it won the prize for Best Direction. It had its theatrical release in January and is now travelling around the country. Because it was made for entertainment only, unlike any other films of the North Korean film industry (see above), it has sent shock waves through the industry and is packing the cinemas full.
We have watched the film with locals and they love it. In fact, perhaps it's better to quote a letter we received from our co producer in Pyongyang:
"The film Comrade Kim Goes Flying has been screened at the cinemas all over the country. And as the heroine of the film (Comrade Kim Yong Mi, played by Han Jong Sim) comes from the countryside in the film, many of them often call and write fan letters to her. Because of the screening, some people from the distribution company here had been to the countryside and they say that they people really enjoyed it. Young girls told that they would like to be the heroine of the film.
It has been screened at the cultural house in Gwangwon Province, and some people called Yong Mi and asked her whether the characteristics of the heroine are her real ones or not. And some even asked her about her shoes, which she brings from the coal mine and puts on when she is on the bus. They asked her whether the shoes are really her shoes or not."
In addition to this the circus has had a massive increase in pupils trying for auditions:
“They have had increased [the] number of pupils applying this year. It increased almost double compared to last year”.
I came back from Pongyang a week ago and met up with our actress Han Jong Sim, who has just been performing at the Pyongyang Circus (she is by profession an aerialist). She told me she now cannot walk down the street without being stopped and she finds it all rather surreal: one minute a trapeze artist and the next a film star. I told her we were coming to Melbourne for the film festival and she insisted I took photos of the audience and to tell her what the reaction to the film was.
It has been quite an adventure so far and this is just the beginning of the film's life in North Korea as it is now travelling around the countryside – and the locals are all talking about the girl who goes out to fulfil her dream!
Comrade Kim Goes Flying screens
Pictured above: scenes from the film