Cheerfully smashing perceptions of North Korea as a shuttered nation, “Comrade Kim Goes Flying” proves that cooperation with the West really is possible, at least in cinema. A candy-hued throwback to a chirpy Technicolor time when pluck wins out and “postmodern” wasn’t yet invented, this “let’s put on a show!” tale of a young woman miner’s dream of becoming an acrobat has been winning hearts since preeming at Toronto. Helmed by the multinational trio of Kim Gwang-hun, Nicholas Bonner, and Anja Daelemans, “Comrade Kim” has the makings of a cult heroine on college campuses and targeted arthouses.
The production’s backstory deserves its own docu; indeed a “making of” would be a terrific bonus to any DVD package: U.K. national/North Korea maven Nicholas Bonner (producer of “The Game of Their Lives,” “A State of Mind”) and Belgian producer Anja Daelemans convinced North Korean Ryom Mi-hwa, well connected in her country’s film industry, that a femme-centric story of working class determination could be popular at home and abroad. Ryom recruited director Kim Gwang-hun, known for military-themed pics, and their journey together lasted three years, costing approximately $1.8 million. The film was shot in North Korea (Bonner and Daelemans weren’t allowed on set for the coal mine and steelworks scenes), with editing done in China and Belgium.
Who knew that North Korean grass is so green, and its flowers so pink? Maybe it’s because everyone’s so happy, giving their all to exceed factory quotas. Kim Yong-mi (Han Jong-sim) follows in the mining footsteps of her father (Kim Son-nam), though Dad wonders if his daughter’s exuberant imagination and amateur acrobatics might interfere with her work. When she’s offered a post with a construction brigade in Pyongyang, she jumps at the opportunity, not least because it’ll allow her to see her heroine, gymnast Ri Su-yon (Kim Un-yong).
Through sheer force of personality, Yong-mi gets backstage at the circus, and meets Su-yon and the other acrobats, including snooty male star Pak Jang-phil (Pak Chung-guk). A chance to audition for them on the high wire is a dream come true, but the young miner’s trapeze skills fail her, and Jang-phil haughtily derides her attempt: “You think you can crawl out of the ground and fly like us?” Instead of being cowed, Yong-mi becomes determined, with the help of good-natured mining boss Sok Gun (Ri Yong-ho), to train hard and prove to all that just because she labors under the earth doesn’t mean she can’t soar like a bird.
Western charges of propaganda are dogging “Comrade Kim,” but when the propaganda is so blatant, is it really a problem? The strong, happy spirit of the working class positively bursts off the screen, constantly reminding viewers that the proletariat is invincible when it bands together for the common good. Where the pic diverges from the usual North Korean line is in championing a female protag with individual goals (Jane Powell was never this jaunty), though importantly, her ability to achieve them comes only through the collective. While the state is barely mentioned, its presence is inescapable.
Notwithstanding the input of three helmers, “Comrade Kim” is as slick and glossy as a medium-budget studio musical, and largely composed of short scenes with the texture of decorated Easter eggs. It may be unabashedly kitsch to Western eyes, but it’s also such fun that criticizing its shallowness is churlish. The response among North Korean auds is reportedly strong, undoubtedly boosted by the pic’s uplifting girl-power message. Of course North Koreans will know it’s propaganda, too, yet with such an affirmative spirit, it must feel a lot fresher than the nation’s noted 2008 docu “The Respected Comrade Supreme Commander Is Our Destiny.”