It is a classic tale of a small-town girl who follows her dreams to the big city. However, in this case, the girl is a North Korean coal miner, the big city is Pyongyang and her dream is to become a high-flying trapeze artist.
Comrade Kim Goes Flying, a collaboration between a North Korean director and two European filmmakers, premiered on Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival before it heads to Pyongyang later this month for its North Korean debut.
The film was shot on location with an all-Korean cast, but it avoids overtly political themes and is not what foreign audiences might expect to see from North Korea: A feel-good romantic comedy about a plucky young woman who grabs her chance to run off to the circus, only to find her wings clipped by the show’s handsome, but arrogant, superstar. He seems determined to make sure she does not succeed — until he falls in love with her.
British co-director Nicholas Bonner called the story an “unexpected fairytale.”
“It’s a universal story about a young girl wanting to achieve her dream,” Bonner said on Friday from Toronto. “It’s the same story you and I grew up with” — but set in North Korea.
Pyongyang is familiar territory for Bonner, co-founder of Beijing-based Koryo Group, which organizes tour groups, art shows and sports exchanges with North Korea. Belgian producer Anja Daelemans, a two-time Oscar nominee, got a peek of the country when she showed a short film at the Pyongyang International Film Festival in 2002. The duo teamed up with Ryom Mi-hwa, a North Korean producer who has worked closely with Koryo Group over the years.
Citing the Korean phrase “Over the mountains are mountains,” Bonner and Daelemans describe the making of the movie as a “long and halting process of ups and downs.”
The film’s cast and crew have had little interaction with the outside world. North Korea, one of the world’s last Cold War outposts, remains mostly isolated from the rest of the world, a country more famous for its nuclear defiance than its potential for romantic comedies.
Yet movies are hugely popular. Late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il famously championed filmmaking as an essential propaganda tool in his 1973 treatise, On the Art of Cinema.
North Korea has collaborated in the past with production companies from countries such as Russia, China and Italy. Promise in Pyongyang, released this year, is a Chinese-North Korean production. Bonner and his Koryo Group colleagues have made three documentaries on North Korea.
However, Comrade Kim is the first European collaboration since the action film Ten Zan, the Ultimate Mission, a North Korean-Italian production from the 1980s.
For director Kim Gwang-hun, shooting a romantic comedy was a departure from his usual military-themed work. However, he said he relished the idea of offering audiences lighter entertainment.
Then there was the issue of casting. Going with acrobatic skill over acting chops, they chose Han Jong-sim and Pak Chung-guk, acrobats with the Pyongyang Circus, and enrolled them in four months of intensive acting training. She and Pak were backed up by some of North Korea’s most famous actors.
Comrade Kim also offers foreign audiences a look at life inside North Korea. Or at least the cinematic version, where there is plenty of food on the table and enough electricity for the heroine Yong-mi to scribble in her diary at night.