After discovering the enthralling culture of North Korea while studying in Beijing over two decades ago, UK-born Nicholas Bonner has helped establish Beijing as a base for those interested in exploring the DPRK... Countless trips and three documentary films later, Nick is still enamored with all North Korea has to offer and hopes to continue connecting people with the DPRK.
The "enthralling culture"? Apparently so:
"At the time of my first trip to the DPRK, there weren’t that many differences between Beijing and Pyongyang. Both cities were being rebuilt. But now, Beijing and Pyongyang are very different. Pyongyang was totally erased during the Korean War (1950-1953). So for a landscape architect, it’s fascinating to see a city rebuilt on Socialist principles. Pyongyang has a lot of green space, there isn’t much traffic and there’s an amazing array of architecture. Not to everyone’s liking, but if you like Corbusier and that socialist realist style, it’s paradise."
The man runs a company, Koryo Tours, that organises trips to this socialist paradise. And now he's realised his ambition and made a film there. A romantic comedy, no less, about a young and comely coal miner from rural North Korea who dreams of becoming an acrobat in Pyongyang:
It was just shown at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea. Here's an interview with the proud director:
It was a very nice and smooth experience overall. The main two stars (Han Jong Sim & Pak Chung Guk) are actually professional acrobats who learned to act and did a great job for the movie. The rest of the cast included some of the most famous actors in North Korea. One of the guys is like the North Korean George Clooney and he even managed to make quite an impression on some of ladies in the European movie crew during filming. The great thing was that there were very humble about not being the stars of the movie and worked well to ease the acrobats into their new roles.
More puffery here, with much positive talk of cultural exchange, challenging people's prejudices about North Korea (they're people just like us, y'know), being a catalyst for change, etc. etc..
Here's a more realistic appraisal:
Comrade Kim Goes Flying is unique in the truest meaning of the word: it is the first ever Western-financed film to be made entirely in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The comedy of a blue-collar coal miner pursuing her dreams of becoming a trapeze artist, Comrade Kim arrives in the West as wacky cultural camp with a side-order of historical significance.
According to Comrade Kim Goes Flying, North Korea is a happy place; a utopia where everything is possible, everything is colorful, and everything is great. Of course, as our uncensored Google searches reveal, this is an expectedly false representation of the totalitarian state: the regime has a horrifically poor record on human rights, and the hardships endured are very real and very awful. In other words, to see this dystopia depicted so positively makes for some extremely bizarre cinema.
Regardless, the film is still a film – something to critique and watch and enjoy and discuss. In that sense I liken Comrade Kim Goes Flying to Triumph of the Will, where peripheral, international audiences understand the film’s context from an informed perspective on global affairs, while local subjects (at the time of its release) whoop and cheer from beginning to end. Watching Comrade Kim feels like voyeurism, but this film has been exported overseas in hopes that it will renew faith in North Korean values. It doesn’t, obviously, despite the film’s hardest attempts to show infectious smiles, bountiful cornucopias of delicious food, serene pastures, and an invigorating nightlife. The world has never seen North Korea and its people so cheerful and inviting...
Based on its intended merits, Comrade Kim is a banal, over-the-top comedy. As North Korea isn’t known for its cultural critiques or social satire, the “real” jokes are all physical, never straying from slap-stick humor or silly gesticulations. Knowing audiences will laugh elsewhere, as the film features some “hilarious” meta-comedy when it reinforces the strength of the working class.
So, we're invited to watch...ironically.
Triumph of the Will was a genuinely powerful work which raised all kinds of awkward questions about art and propaganda. Comrade Kim Goes Flying, we learn, is second-rate and derivative, but might raise a knowing snicker here and there.
I think I'll pass.