What can make the happiest coal miner in the world happier still? Fulfilling a life-long dream of becoming an acrobat in the world’s greatest circus.
That’s the storyline behind the hugely entertaining North Korean romantic comedy “Comrade Kim Goes Flying” (2012), still dutifully making the rounds on the festival circuit since its premiere in Toronto last year.
Billed as the first ‘Girl Power’ movie from the Democratic People’s Republic, it stars newcomer Han Jong-Sim in the lead role as the ever-smiling Kim, a young woman who’s harbored dreams of flying since traipsing pensively through fields of flowers as a little girl. As an independently-minded young woman, she finally gets the chance through a variation of the time-tested theme: never stop chasing your dreams. And she does so in a screenplay that has her bounding across vibrant sets and scenes as colorful as Christmas ornaments and Easter eggs.
The prime fascination here is that the film is from the northern side of the 38th parallel, the world’s last closed and strictly-controlled society, one most of us know very little about. ‘Comrade Kim’ is an officially sanctioned film so there are plenty of propaganda elements at work, with no shortage of gratuitous hat tips to the unbreakable spirit of the working class and the greatness of their Supreme Leader.
But when the cinematic agitprop is so over the top in every conceivable way, does it really matter? It comes across as farce, after all, eliciting laughter, not encouraging a mass exodus towards Pyongyang. So for those in search of some deeper hidden, perhaps even insidious political meaning, you’ll be disappointed, so it’s best to stop deconstructing now, and just sit back and enjoy.
After a few flashbacks to her childhood years, the story begins with Kim as a 28-year-old contently employed at the world’s happiest and cleanest coal mine, living a happy life in a provincial town with her coal miner father and grandmother. When she’s selected to join a construction brigade in Pyongyang –one that features what is certainly the happiest construction crew on the planet– her dreams of becoming an acrobat are reignited. She hits the ground running when her bus pulls into the modern sprawling capital, where, suitcase in hand, she heads directly to the circus auditorium where she sneaks by the ticket taker who delivers an understated tribute to Kim’s chutzpah. “In all my years, that’s the first time that someone has gotten in without a ticket,” the exasperated man remarks.
After the performance she meets her soon-to-retire idol who encourages her to attend an upcoming open audition. She does but fearful of heights, she fails miserably.
“Coal miners belong underground, not flying through the air,” she’s told by Pak Jang Phil (Pak Chung-guk), an arrogant trapeze star. She then sets out, with a lot of help from her friends, to prove Pak wrong. When he sees her progress and determination, Pak changes his mind, eats his words, and tries to get Kim into the circus, and into his heart.
In real life, both Han and Pak are actual trapeze artists in the Pyongyang Circus here playing their first film roles, and it shows. But that’s all part of the film’s playful, campy and kitschy allure.
Reportedly made for just under $2 million and shot entirely on location in North Korea, ‘Comrade Kim’ is a joint production teaming Beijing-based Englishman Nicholas Bonner, who has traveled extensively to North Korea; Belgian Anja Daelemans, a two-time short film Academy Award nominee; and North Korean director Kim Gwang-Hun, who specializes in military films. Edited in China, government authorities didn’t view the finished product until it was entered in the 2012 Pyongyang Film Festival. Apparently, they enjoyed the kitsch, too.