The Pyongyang Film Festival finished up at the end of September. Among its selections was the film “Comrade Kim Goes Flying”, a joint project between Belgian, British, and North Korean film companies. It is unusual for international filmmakers to gain access to North Korea to make a movie, but a collaboration such as this one, filmed inside North Korea with an entirely North Korean cast, is especially noteworthy.
A promotional image from the 2012 film “Comrade Kim Goes Flying” shows the title character at work in the coal mines. Photo credit http://www.comradekimgoesflying.com.
The film was directed by Nick Bonner, who has considerable experience with North Korea as the leader of Koryo Group, a tourism agency based in Beijing that has offered cultural visits to North Korea since 1993. According to Danwei, the Koryo Group’s genesis was when Bonner played soccer with the British Embassy team in the early nineties; he got to know a North Korean teammate and by 1993 the company was up and running its first tour inside North Korea.
Since then, Bonner has become one of the most notable Westerners engaged with North Korea; in addition to running regular tours, his company also sponsors the Pyongyang International Film Festival, and Bonner has completed four documentaries about the DPRK. The first one covered the 1996 World Cup team (“The Games of their Lives”, 2002); the second, the training of two young Pyongyang athletes for the Arirang Mass Games (“A State of Mind”, 2004); the third, a U.S. army soldier who defected from South to North Korea (“Crossing the Line”, 2006). “Comrade Kim Goes Flying” is Bonner’s fourth film.
I watched “A State of Mind” a few years ago and loved it; it was a quiet, insightful, and objective perspective on the small details of lives of two girls in North Korea. I highly recommend it.
Given this fact, I’m excited to watch Bonner’s newest film, though it seems very different from his earlier productions. First, Bonner co-produced this newest film, “Comrade Kim Goes Flying,” with Anja Daelemans, a filmmaker from Belgium. She had screened a film at the Pyongyang Film Festival in 2002, where she met Bonner; he told her his idea about a coal-mining girl becoming a trapeze artist, and they decided to collaborate on the film.
But the most notable aspect of the movie’s production is the third foot of the movie’s filmmaking tripod. The film was produced in close cooperation with North Korean writers, directors, and actors. It was filmed entirely in North Korea, with a North Korean cast. Filmmaker Kim Gwang-hun was the principal director, and Ryom Mi-hua co-produced. So everything Bonner and Daelemans wanted to do had to get a stamp of approval from the North Korean government.
Bonner has mentioned in a 2009 interview that his goal is engagement—of Westerners and North Koreans alike. He notes, “A local in New York knows about as much about North Korea as a North Korean in Pyongyang knows about New York. There is a great lack of information which allows one-sided views to remain unquestioned.”
This story is about bridging that gap: the collaborative aspect of its production brings North Korean filmmaking to a Western audience as it also brings a Western style of filmmaking to North Korean audiences at the Pyongyang Film Festival.
A promotional image from the 2012 film “Comrade Kim Goes Flying” shows the title character in an aerial stunt. Photo credit http://www.comradekimgoesflying.com.
The film’s plot centers around a coal-miner trying to realize her dream of becoming a trapeze artist. A film focusing on individual self-determinism is new for North Korea; most North Korean films follow relatively narrow themes of ideological education. In an article in the New York Times, Bonner describes how he pushed the writers and actors away from conventional ideological lines toward more universal human emotions; they sought to “access a part of the world we all have in common—dreams, laughter, romance”.
The final portrait of North Korean life that the film presents is admittedly unrepresentative of ordinary life in the country; some reviews harp on that, but how representative of ordinary American life are most of Hollywood’s films? Bonner emphasized that his goal was never to provide an insider’s view of North Korea. The goal, he said, was simple entertainment; the film is just “a girl-power fairy tale about dreaming to fly.”
“Comrade Kim Goes Flying” premiered at the Toronto film festival, then hit Pyongyang, and was recently shown in October at South Korea’s Busan film festival. It’s remarkable for a film from North Korea to make it to South Korean audiences. “All we ever wanted,” Bonner said, “was for Korean audiences to see the film on both sides of the border and be entertained.”
A promotional image from the 2012 film “Comrade Kim Goes Flying” suggests peace and unification. Photo credit http://www.comradekimgoesflying.com.