The strangest thing about Comrade Kim Goes Flying is the nationality of its directors. When I first heard that there was a collaboration between the UK, Belgium, and North Korea, and a romantic comedy no less, I knew that I had to see it and find out what the hell it was. But because it was a co-production, I expected… I dunno, something a little more subversive? Comrade Kim Goes Flying is a lot of things, but subversive it is not. It is as clear a piece of cinematic propaganda as I have ever seen.
And I watch Michael Moore films.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
Comrade Kim Goes Flying
Directors: Nicholas Bonner, Anja Daelemans, and Kim Gwang-Hun
Country: United Kingdom, Belgium, North Korea
When I imagine North Korean propaganda, I don’t think of laughter and circus tricks. I think of threats and reminders that the leader (whoever it may be at the time) is immortal and God on earth or whatever. That everyone else is basically the devil incarnate and also that joy is forbidden. But Comrade Kim Goes Flying isn’t like that at all. In fact, it’s downright adorable. From beginning to end, I had a smile on my face, and I was completely invested in the journey of Comrade Kim Yong Mi (Han Jong Sim). Comrade Kim is a coal miner (always exceeding her quota, as any good member of the working class should), but she has aspirations of being an acrobat. Ever since she was a child, she has wanted to fly, but her father doesn’t want her to reach her full potential.
But this is North Korea, and in North Korea the working class can do whatever it puts its mind to! When Comrade Kim decides to join the Construction Brigade in Pyongyang for a year, she does it at least in part so she can see the circus. She learns that her idol, trapeze artist Ri Su Hyon (Kim Un Yong), is retiring, and she auditions as a replacement. The audition is a failure, because it turns out that Comrade Kim suffers from vertigo, and so goes back off to Construction. But even if she is somewhat discouraged from acrobatics, she loves working with the Construction team mixing cement, carrying bricks, whatever she has to do. She does it all with a massive, perfect smile on her face.
Because she is the epitome of the working class, and she is happy doing what she can to help society.
All of this sarcasm, truly, comes out of love. Comrade Kim is the most adorable person who has ever existed, and even though her determination wavers a bit as she finds herself againt overwhelming odds, she is successful, because goddamn it SHE IS THE WORKING CLASS! And if I ever wanted to forget, the constant speeches and slogans would make it impossible. Oh the drinking games that could come from this film. “Take a shot every time they celebrate the working class!” By the third act, everyone would be dead from alcohol poisoning. I showed a friend the trailer, and she said to me, “This looks adorable! Also, it’s propaganda?” Impressively, they cut Yes, it’s adorable propaganda, and perhaps that’s the most dangerous kind.
If Wikipedia is to be believed (which it probably isn’t), this is the first film to come from North Korea since 2008, which makes it an important representation of and look into that culture. It’s kind of bizarre, actually, because it doesn’t seem much more modern than what was shown in the 1979 Taiwanese relic Never Too Late to Repent, which also screened at NYAFF. If Comrade Kim represents the reality of North Korea, then the country is stuck decades in the past. To think that the film was only released this year is kind of incredible.
And maybe I’m too high-brow to realize that that’s just what coal mining is like and construction workers are like, but… cell phones. And computers. These things are nowhere to be found. I don’t even think I saw a television (but maybe I did?). If these things existed in the backgrounds of shots, I missed them. Perhaps I was too distracted by Hong Jong Sim’s brilliant smile. I think North Korea should make her their ambassador. If she showed up at the UN and just smiled at everyone, hearts would melt, and North Korea would be welcomed into the international community with open arms.
So it’s weird that this film was made by a Brit and a Belgian, because this is almost certainly not what North Korea is like. Pyongyang is their premiere city, and it’s glowing (to the point where some of it actually looked fake). Even if the people are as happy as Comrade Kim there, what about the rest of the country? The team behind Comrade Kim has worked in North Korea before, making documentaries. I haven’t seen them, but this film doesn’t make me want to. It makes me think that the directors are every bit as brainwashed as the citizens seem to be.
But at the same time, I can’t hold that against Comrade Kim Goes Flying. The film may have been made with some sketchy intentions… but it’s just so damn cute. Watching it is an absolutely joyous thing. It may be 81 minutes of propaganda, but it’s 81 minutes of amazing, positively charged propaganda that puts a smile on people’s faces. Everyone I talked to who has seen the film has said the same thing.
So I unequivocally recommend the film, just don’t think it’s something it isn’t. Just sit back and enjoy the working class celebration, because, don’t forget, they can do anything they set their minds to.