By Doug Cummings
Comrade Kim Goes Flying is one of the most unique and entertaining features at this year's Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. The first fiction feature shot in North Korea and co-produced by both Western and North Korean companies, it sidesteps current political tensions to offer a spunky comedy about a female coal miner (Kim Yong Mi) who dreams of becoming a circus acrobat. The film screens Sunday, May 5 at 5:45 PM at CGV Cinemas.
A few days after its two female leads appeared on stage at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, its British co-producer, Nicholas Bonner, spoke with us about the production. Bonner has lived in Beijing for 20 years, where he operates Koryo Tours, an independent company that organizes travel and cultural exchanges with North Korea. He's been producing documentaries in the country for the last several years, but this is the first North Korean fictional film he's done.
How many features a year does North Korea produce?
Well, they say twenty but it's probably closer to ten to fifteen on 35mm. In the '80s it was more, but certainly in the '90s and '00s it was less, perhaps only three or four titles a year. Now that they've gone digital in the last year, they're making more; it's picking up again.
We started showing Comrade Kim Goes Flying in North Korea in February. Our North Korean producer emailed me and told me her neighbor saw it one day and went back the next to see it again. So if that's the test, it passed. It's now showing around the country.
The same cut?
Exactly the same, no changes whatsoever. [Meaning it passed the country's censors]
How have audiences abroad reacted to the film? It's such a colorful, happy movie, did it occur to you that Western viewers might regard it as satire?
We've had all sorts of reactions. People have read it as satirical, as tongue-in-cheek, as kitch, as propaganda. It was made as broad entertainment — we never wanted to make a European or North Korean niche film. I was there for the whole shoot apart from the mine scenes, and I can tell you the entire film reflects a North Korean director's instructions on how to film it for North Korean audiences.
Having said that, it was the first North Korean feature to be edited abroad, and we color graded it; we wanted bluer blues, greener greens, that Technicolor feel that represents an idealized world, a fairy tale world. I've made documentaries before, this was not intended as a commentary on life in North Korea.
Our North Korean co-producer, Ryom Mi Hwa, wanted to make a film that was better technical quality than what's generally made in North Korea. Our Belgian co-producer, Anja Daelemans, has made Oscar-nominated shorts before, and she wanted to make it because it sounded like an interesting challenge. For myself, I wanted something to show North Korean audiences.
What has been the critical response?
The reviews have been interesting — some hit the mark, but one prominent reviewer didn't understand the complexities of the film or respect that it was so different for North Korean cinema. I don't think Westerners have even seen North Korean films before, so they just assume as soon as you see people smiling, it must be propaganda. Most of our audiences get it, that it's a feel-good story about a girl who goes against her father's wishes and succeeds on her own.
I understand it's unusual for North Korean films to have female protagonists?
North Korean films have female protagonists, but there's always a strong male lead behind them, so it's almost like the female is doing it but the male is there, whether it be a coach or a Party member. What's unusual in almost any cinema is to have a female come through without male support; Thelma and Louise end up killing themselves!
We showed Comrade Kim in Copenhagen and a couple of girls came up to us and said, “You know, there aren't many films worldwide where women who go on their own actually make it without being punished.”
In this one, the male protagonist falls in love with Comrade Kim for her own qualities rather than simply to please his demanding mother. We showed the film in South Korea, and a Korean man stood up and said, “It's nice to know that mother-in-laws in the North are the same as they are in the South.”
How did you find your actors?
We could've found actors and trained them as trapeze artists, but it wouldn't have been believable. With trapeze artists, all their movements are graceful; our lead actress, Kim Yong Mi, can move and turn amazingly, her athletic ability is almost frightening. So we trained her in acting for two months and continued on set.
We had a lot of A-list actors. The commander of the work unit is the North Korean George Clooney — he's a very famous actor, what they call a “People's Artist.” He would normally play the lead role, but in this film he was excited to help the newbies.
We also used extras. The character on a motorcycle was a guy off the street. We asked if we could borrow him for two hours, but he eventually asked, “Can I go home now?”
Did you face any difficulties shooting on location?
Shooting a film in North Korea, people always wonder about permissions and this and that, but in essence, we only dealt with filmmakers. Anja [the Belgian producer] came over at the end of the shoot, and what impressed her was that it was a normal film set, fifty people going about their jobs in order to get their shots, just like filmmakers anywhere. We were dealing with professionals, albeit with their own style.