Interview: Nicholas Bonner (Co-Director – ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying’)

A delightful, winning, life-affirming fable about a young coal miner’s pursuit of her dream to become an acrobat, ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying‘ marks a milestone in film history: it is the first collaboration of its kind made entirely in North Korea. This charming film wears its heavy historical mantle with grace, weaving a lovely, light-hearted tale whose themes — overcoming adversity, and realizing the dream of a lifetime—upend our assumptions of a largely cloistered culture.

Kim Yong-mi (Han Jong-sim) works as a coal miner in a small village. She dreams of one day joining the national circus and performing on the trapeze — even despite the fact that she is deathly afraid of heights. When she is promoted and sent to the capital, Pyongyang, she seizes the opportunity to make her dream come true. Insinuating herself into the circus and struggling to overcome her acrophobia, Yong-mi meets Pak Jang-phil (Pak Chung-guk), the arrogant, good-looking star of the Pyongyang Trapeze Troupe. At first, Jang-phil makes fun of the congenitally klutzy Yong-mi. But eventually her beauty, endearing personality and unyielding determination win him over, and teach him a valuable lesson in humility.

Co-directed by Nicholas Bonner (along with collaborator Kim Gwang-hun, a North Korean filmmaker; and Belgian filmmaker Anja Daelemans), ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying‘  will play as part of the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival

For Tickets to ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying’ ClickHERE

Describe the process of the 3-way production with Another Dimension of an Idea (Belgium) and Korea Film Export & Import Corporation.  Why was a joint production necessary to produce ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying’?  Describe the individual responsibilities of each production company.
The film is a multi cultural exchange with the common dream of making a feature film purely for entertainment. The result is a unique collaboration between professional North Korean and European filmmakers in creating a universal story.

During the three years of script writing, started initially as 3 friends from different parts of the world that wanted to make a film together (North Korean Ryom Mi Hwa, Belgian Anja Daelemans and Britain Nicholas Bonner) we struggled with cultural differences and needed to find a way to tell to a universal story that would work for both North Korean and Western audiences. Primarily the movie was made for a North Korean audience.

Each of the three groups (Belgium/UK/North Korea) provided an equal input but the main responsibility of the shoot was with the North Korean team and the European team took on the post production.

Comrade Kim goes Flying was for the North Koreans the first time they  had a feature edited outside their own country- the North Korean Director, Editor, Producer and sound man came to Beijing for a 6 weeks editing period together with us and then the project was taken to Belgium for completion.

 The film was shot in Pyongyang with a North Korean cast & crew.  What is the filmmaking infrastructure like in Pyongyang?  How do you gauge the general interest in film from the community there?
The North Koreans have two film studios and a tv studio as well as two script writing departments. Film production has fallen since the 1980’s and the best way of describing the North Korean film making infrastructure and techniques is “retro”.

In North Korea the level of interest in their films has dropped over the past decade and locally produced films which were heavy in propaganda have not been bringing in the audiences.  Perhaps part of the reason is that a few western and Chinese films have been broadcast in North Korea and they realize that their films were outdated. We were involved in screening “Bend it like Beckham” in 2004 at the biennial Pyongyang International Film Festival and saw the happy reaction of audiences had to the film and realised that there was an opportunity for something magical to be made in the country. “Comrade Kim goes Flying” was first shown at the Pyongyang International Film Festival in 2012 and since January 2013 has been touring the country and people are coming back to the cinema. The following is from an email we received direct from the North Korean production company:

The film “Comrade Kim Goes Flying” has been screened at the cinemas all over the country. And as the heroine of the film (Comrade Kim Yong Mi played by Han Jong Sim) comes from the countryside in the film, many of them often call and write fan letters to her. Because of the screening, some people from the distribution company here had been to the countryside and they say that they people really enjoyed it. Young girls told that they would like to be the heroine of the film.

In addition to this the circus has had a massive increase in pupils trying for auditions and the movie is a big success in North Korea and people talk about it, this is from another email from the North Korean production company: “And they have had increased number of pupils applying this year. It increased almost double compared to last year”.

Comrade Kim Goes Flying

The film has played at several film festivals around the world including the Pyongyang Film Festival.  Can you give us your first hand impressions of this event?  How does this festival’s construction differ (if it does) from, say, the Toronto Film Festival?
The Pyongyang International Film Festival is a small festival  and obviously an unusual film festival but it does an important job- introducing locals to foreign films. The audience numbers are significant  – for Bend It like Beckham over 12,000 members of the Pyongyang public saw the film.

We had the cast and crew come for the Pyongyang premier of “Comrade Kim goes Flying” and had a great after party. During the screening our lead character M/s Han Jong Sim (who plays Comrade Kim Yong Mi) had to leave part way through to fly across the May Day stadium over 150 metres in length and between 80 and 20 metres in the air on an elasticated bungee for the Arirang mass games (over 100,000 choreographed performers).

As ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying’ is the first Western financed film to be shot in North Korea, how do you gauge its cultural importance within that country, as well as around the world?
This is a mistake which comes from the initial programmers notes at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012. It is not a fully financed western film, each country paid it’s own expenses the same as in a normal co-production.  “Comrade Kim goes Flying” is not a mainstream North Korean film- it is a girl power movie, a taboo breaker, and non political. Made for pure entertainment

Western audiences are seeing something entirely unexpected – a North Korean film that’s neither a documentary   nor propaganda, but a retro-style fairytale and a feel good movie – without any hidden messages, without any politicising, but with lots of laughs.

Comrade Kim Goes Flying

How have American audiences reacted to the film so far?  Is there any misconception American audiences bring to screenings of ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying’?  If so, what are some of the ways these misconceptions can be clarified?
We have had some great screenings and it is really special for us to see audiences getting into the film and supporting Comrade Kim Yong Mi in her dream to fly. What is even more amazing is realising that the film is being screened at the same time in North Korea and that audience are having a similar reactions.

We were asked by the North Korean filmmakers we worked with how the American audience would react to the film and if they would like it and laugh. They are really fascinated in how the film is received and were delighted to hear some of the audience comments.

If the western audience can drop their preconceptions and understand that the film is a Universal story about a girl who follows her dreams then they love it.

Whilst American audiences have seen films with similar themes it is important to note that “Comrade Kim goes Flying” in North Korea is a taboo breaker: it is the first time a North Korean audience have seen a girl power movie and the first time the story focuses on an individual achieving her dreams.  Occasionally people try and read too much into the film. It is a fictional film not a documentary and you are not going to get an insight into North Korean daily life.  American audiences are clearly fascinated with the film and as no one knows what to expect before they watch the film we get a very lively Q & A.

We have had families that left North Korea who have watched the film and adore it and we became one of the few North Korean films ever to be shown at Busan International Film Festival- as the Director of the festival pointed out that this was because it was non- political.  A South Korean man in the Q & A stood up and said “nice to see that mother in laws are the same in the North as they are in the South!

‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying’ is :
– A cultural exchange project between North Koreans and European Film professionals
– It is not a documentary you are not going to get an insight into North Korean daily life.  The movie is 100% FICTIONAL
– Is not a mainstream North Korean film- it is a girl power movie, a taboo breaker, and non political.
– It is not a propaganda movie
– it is a universal story about a girl who follows her dreams. Made for entertainment, no hidden messages, we had fun making it and hope the audiences also will have fun watching it, laughing is ok.

– Interview prepared by Steve Rickinson


Friday, July 5, 2013
New York Asian Film Festival & Film Society of Lincoln Center present
@ Walter Reade Theater
165 W 65 St.
New York, NY
Facebook: /ComradeKimGoesFlying
Twitter: @ComradeKimMOVIE


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