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Inside the making of North Korea’s first girl power movie

Talking to the makers of ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying’, one of the country’s most popular movies, and the first collaboration between the Hermit Kingdom and the West

Comrade Kim wants to prove that coal miners can fly. Kim Young Mi, a miner in a rural province in North Korea, harbours a burning desire to become an acrobat. Catching a lucky break to work on a construction crew in Pyongyang, she takes some days before the start of work to visit the circus and watch the acrobats. After managed to get backstage, she gets an audition to follow in the footsteps of her hero Ri Su Yon and become a trapeze artist. All that stands in her way is Pak Jang Pil, the arrogant male trapeze star who believes that coal miners belong underground and not in the air.

Such is the premise of Comrade Kim Goes Flying, the first western/North Korean co-produced film. “It’s a North Korean film made for a North Korean audience,” Nick Bonner, one of the directors and producers of the film tells me. “You need to leave your preconceptions at the door.” By his estimate, the film has been seen by over 80 per cent of people in North Korea; both in the grand cinemas of Pyongyang and in the cinemas of rural collectives. “It’s also widely available on DVD,” he adds.

According to Bonner, the film has also been something of a revolution for the North Korean film industry. “This is one of the first films made in the country for pure entertainment,” he says “it’s not just a straight propaganda film and it does away with one of the key tropes of North Korean cinema – of someone making a grave error and then realising that all they needed was to remember the power of the great leader and all would be well.”

“This is one of the first films made in the country for pure entertainment. It’s not just a straight propaganda film” – Nick Bonner

Making a film without that conceit, and the popularity that it garnered within the country – the film won numerous awards at the Pyongyang film festival and the poster is displayed proudly in Pyongyang – has prompted the North Korean film industry to undergo something of a reshuffle. “All filming was halted for a year,” Bonner says, “but they’re underway on some new projects. I’m hearing that they’re currently working on a horror movie.”

I met with Bonner before a screening of Comrade Kim Goes Flying at the Barbican. He’s eccentric – as one might expect of the first westerner to co-produce a film in North Korea­­ – and he talks with the kind of quick affability that means his sentences sometimes skip verbs or trail off into a separate thought entirely. For the last 25 years, he has been visiting the DPRK, sometimes as often as once a month, and he runs Koryo Tours, the largest tour company ferrying western tourists into the hermit kingdom. “I see tourism as a form of engagement with a country that has almost no access to the outside world,” he says.

The issue of engaging with North Korea is not without its detractors. Critics argue that tourism props up the regime, which is responsible for grave human rights violations against its own people – public executions, holding people indefinitely in concentration camps and massively curtailing individual freedoms; including the most egregious mass censorship of any contemporary society (there is no internet in North Korea, just an intranet available for the elite). But as Bonner points out the money from tourism is negligible; “I manage to take in over half of all the westerners who visit North Korea annually, and I do it with a team of just twelve people, so the sums of money are hardly stratospheric,” he says, putting an estimate on the amount of money tourism generates annually for the regime at just £10mn (though an academic report from 2014 puts the figure higher; at around $30-$45mn).

The inherent ambiguity of engagement with North Korea makes it hard to watch Comrade Kim objectively as a piece of cinema removed from its political context. “But I didn’t want to make a war film or a propaganda film,” argues Anja Daelemans, the other Western director on the project. A serious filmmaker – she has been nominated twice for Academy Awards for the short films Fait d’Hiver and Tanghi Argentini – she wants the film to be regarded for its own sake and not as a proxy for the wider debates that encircle anything to do with the DPRK. “The colours and the way we filmed it are all hyper. The blues are too blue, the reds are too red. I am trying to tell you, unequivocally, that this is a fiction, and it should be watched as such,” she says.

The Barbican billed the film as “North Korea’s first ‘girl power’ movie”. The story of Kim Young Mi, who strives to prove her worth as a trapeze artist – and doing so of her own accord without a male figure pushing her – has seen the film find an unexpected fanbase among LGBT audiences at film festivals. Socialist regimes have often promoted rhetoric of strong females who can contribute to the nation – in Mao’s China it was said that ‘women hold up half the sky’ and in the USSR poster campaigns showed women carrying industrial tools and showing off muscular arms. It is true that for a western audience the film, while a little twee, can feel somewhat refreshing in its portrayal of femininity. 

Even pushing the film as some feminist allegory is reaching, the story, which is completely devoid of irony or existential angst, tracks an endearingly linear path of overcoming obstacles, and achieving a dream. There are no mobile phones. Everyone selflessly rallies around each other. It’s the only romantic comedy I’ve ever seen where the leads don’t kiss (other than during their trapeze routine, they don’t even hold hands). In that vein, it’s the kind of film one could imagine finding a niche cult following in the West, as something arch, something refreshingly non-postmodern (that this can also feel feminist says as much about our contemporary moment as it does about North Korea).

But the spectre of representation will always haunt the film. A guy in the audience behind me during the screening could be heard loudly muttering to his girlfriend – “lies, they’re selling us lies!” which seemed tautological, given we were forewarned that we were watching a fictional film designed to entertain a North Korean audience. The film, in portraying North Koreans falling in love, striving for their dreams and generally not suffering, bucks the stereotypes we have of life in the DPRK and paints an altogether different picture. In the wider context where life above the 38th parallel is painted in stark black and white terms, this can be a step to humanising people. “There’s little nuance when we talk about North Koreans. I think we have a tendency to simply victimise or patronise them,” Bonner says.

“There’s little nuance when we talk about North Koreans. I think we have a tendency to simply victimise or patronise them” – Nick Bonner

The problem, however, comes when the amount of information we receive from the country is so minor that a single film can take on outsised representational relevance. We don’t complain about La La Land failing to portray the reality of Los Angeles because of the seemingly infinite amount of information we have about LA. Few watching that film in the West would critique it for presenting an overly stylised and romantic portrait of Los Angeles; a critic asking why the horrors of the casting couch or long panning shots of skid row were omitted would have been dismissed as scoring cheap points and not actually engaging with the film. In the context of a North Korean film, however, we operate in an almost total information vacuum.

The question, therefore, hinges on how we view the concept of ‘reality’ being presented in any piece of cinema; can we accept a simulacrum reality which presents things as they could be, or do we prefer our reality to be gritty and more attuned to actual suffering? The former is surely more entertaining, and as a film designed for a North Korean audience, it’s unsurprising it finds itself on that side of the debate, in the same way, that La La Land presents a stylized vision of Los Angeles. If Comrade Kim existed in a milieu in which there were plenty of North Korean films to choose from, this wouldn’t even be a question worth asking. Given the context, then at the very least, we can say that the film is a novel glimpse of lives lived in a nation unique in its ability to stay shrouded in mystery in the global information age.

But don’t expect to see the film getting a wide release – it has struggled to find a distributor in the West. “It’s too much of an entertainment and not controversial enough for what Westerners want to see from a ‘North Korean’ film,” argues Daelemans, “they want to see a certain portrayal of North Korea… and this isn’t that.”