Two very different movies about North Korea were featured in September’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The first was a documentary entitled “Camp 14 – Total Control Zone”, by the German filmmaker Marc Wiese. According to the TIFF publicity, this is “An enthralling documentary portrait of twenty-nine-year-old Shin Dong-huyk, who was born and spent the first two decades of his life behind the barb wire of a North Korean labour camp, until his dramatic escape launched him into an outside world he had never known.” The movie is based on the book by journalist Blaine Harden entitled Escape From Camp 14, which has been reviewed for CanKor by editor Jack Kim.
The second film featured at the TIFF was a romantic comedy, a joint Belgium, UK & North Korea production. According to TIFF, the movie is about “A young female coal miner (who) struggles to realize her dream of becoming a circus acrobat in this winning, life-affirming fable that is the first Western-financed fiction feature ever made in North Korea.”
In reviewing the TIFF, the New York Times had this to say about the film:
If it didn’t clock in at a numbing 163 minutes, “Cloud Atlas” would, however, make a great double bill with one of the festival’s wackiest selections, the comparatively fleet North Korean fantasia “Comrade Kim Goes Flying.” Trumpeted as the first fiction film bankrolled by a Western company that was shot in North Korea, “Comrade Kim” tracks the fantastic travails and features the many smiles of a chipper young female coal miner, who, like a typical Disney animated princess, dreams a very special dream, in this case one of becoming an acrobat. Crammed with wildly smiling men and women and a lot of chatter about revolutionary spirit and the working class, the movie brings to mind one of those chilling cinematic curios from China’s Cultural Revolution, which means that it’s both a kitsch hallucination and a disturbing freakout. “Comrade Kim Goes Flying” is precisely the kind of movie that makes Toronto such a crucial festival, though it’s also the sort of title that can become lost among the big-ticket attractions.
“Comrade Kim Goes Flying” has also been shown in film festivals on both sides of the Korean divide, the Pyongyang International Film Festival (PIFF) 20 – 27 September, and the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) 4 – 27 October Additionally it is slated to show at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, 8 29 November 2012.
The trio of directors responsible for this film includes our UK CanKor Brain Trust member Nick Bonner. He and the Belgian co-director Anja Daelemans have posted a statement on the film’s website that is worth reading. Since none of us at CanKor have yet seen the film, we present their statement here because of the fascinating story it tells about the making of this unusual collaboration.
Comrade Kim Goes Flying DIRECTORS’ STATEMENT
by Anja Daelemans and Nicholas Bonner
Comrade Kim Goes Flying is an unexpected fairytale that grew from an idea between the two of us on a winter’s evening over a glass of whisky (or two). What began in 2006, as a short film to be shot in North Korea has now become a feature film with an all-Korean cast.
Comrade Kim Goes Flying is the outcome of a long and sometimes halting process of ups and downs. The result of an enriching process of mutual learning and understanding – as the Korean saying goes: Over the mountains are mountains.
In close consultation with us, our North Korean colleagues wrote and rewrote the script for the film over a period of three years. At the early stages, the script was often rejected by the state run film and television studios. Our script was nothing like a standard North Korean script. We had a female lead character pursuing her own dream without regard for country or party, and she was a coal miner dreaming of a life outside the mine. In addition, she was also a young woman (too old according to North Korean standards) training to become a trapeze artist. For all these reasons the script was considered unrealistic. Our story just did not fit traditional North Korean film tropes. Suddenly, it seemed as if Comrade Kim would never fly.
But, all of this was without utilising the ingenuity of our North Korean producer Ryom Mi Hwa. Herself the daughter of a cinematographer, Mi Hwa knows a good story when she sees one. Although, she too, was very close to giving up.
What happened next, felt like something straight out of a film. As a last ditch effort, Mi Hwa purposely left the script in her office waiting room to gauge the reactions of her staff in Pyongyang. After a week, one of her co-workers asked to read the rest of the script, eager to know what eventually happened to the main character. Mi Hwa took heart and gave it a final try and found that the story resonated. Then by a stroke of luck, she was introduced to director Kim Gwang Hun. He was the son of a director who had once collaborated on a film with her father. He liked the script and he brought it to his studio and they agreed to make the film.
With a track record in mostly military themed movies, Kim Gwang Hun initially approached this film as a sports story. We fed the director the ’girl power’ theme and feeling and guided the film towards comedy and romance in order to bring it as close as possible to the magical fairytale we had originally had in mind. Overcoming cultural differences, the three of us eventually found common ground in this universally recognisable story of individual perseverance. This became a creative collaboration of filmmakers from different cultures and countries.
Because of the physical requirements of the film, we had to choose between casting actors who could be trained as acrobats or acrobats who could learn acting roles. After an intense casting process, we chose our leads – Han Jong Sim and Pak Chung Guk – two acrobats from the Pyongyang Circus. They brought not only a very strong physical performance but also a dose of youthful playfulness often lacking in North Korean cinema.
Han Jong Sim and Pak Chung Guk went through four months of intensive acting training. But it was the unconditional support from their fellow professional actors that truly helped them develop their characters. Some of the additional cast members are actually famous stars in North Korea. These actors would normally only accept lead roles, but charmed by this unusual story they willingly played supporting roles to our acrobat leads. Ri Yong Ho, playing Commander Sok Gun, is the ‘George Clooney’ of North Korea. On set, he drew a steady crowd of women always trying to catch a glimpse of this handsome heartthrob.
In the edit process, we realised the need to amplify the story of this independent minded girl who was prepared to fight for her future. Colour, music and animation follow our lead Yong Mi on her journey and became a vital part of the film and her emotional vocabulary. The ‘full option technicolor look’ allowed us to suspend reality. The animation sequences (using North Korean linocut artwork) allowed us to explore her state of mind. And the music score (jointly worked on by a Korean and a Western composer) supports and develops the story emotionally. In addition, we worked very hard on the sound design of the film to make sure that the film had all the details that would enhance the film even further.
This fiction film is set in North Korea but does not intend to give any specific insight into the country. All we wanted was to create empathy for our lead character, Comrade Kim Yong Mi, whose dreams, humour and wit in the face of all kinds of adversity, we can all recognise and value. We hope Comrade Kim Goes flying indeed!
Addendum by Kim Gwang Hun
I wanted to make a light, entertaining and very enjoyable film. In the past my films have not been light in character, I always concentrated on making serious films but now finally I have the opportunity for something different.
The challenge in making this film was casting circus acrobats to play the parts of the lead actor and actress. They have both travelled the world and won various world prizes for their acrobatics, but this was their first time to act. Having real-life acrobats play the hero and heroine in a story set around the circus adds more realism to the film and for the audience.
At first, I thought that the film making process would be very difficult because of language and cultural differences between our foreign partners and us. However, contrary to my anxiety, the filmmaking went smoothly. This was a great collaboration.
- Pyongyang Style: “Comrade Kim Goes Flying” Straight Out Of North Korea (fastcocreate.com)
- Rare screening for North Korean film at Busan festival (entertainment.inquirer.net)
- N. Korean Film Screened at S. Korean Festival (voanews.com)