Directed by Nicholas Bonner, Anja Daelemans, Kim Gwang Hun
Written by Sing Myong-Sik & Kim Chol
Staring Han Jong-sim, Pak Chung-Guk, Ri Yong-Ho
“Comrade Kim Goes Flying” is the first movie of its kind. Co-financed by Western producers and helmed by directors Kim Gwang Hun (North Korean), Nicholas Bonner (English), and Anja Daelemans (Belgian), it represents unprecedented artistic cooperation between North Korea and the West. But despite Western influences, this story of an aspiring female acrobat is an ode to North Korea’s communist working class. As far as propaganda goes, it could have been worse. The blood hardly boils when the film emphasizes the value of teamwork and community. The problem is artistic: Those elements dilute the sense of individualistic drive that makes rags-to-riches stories soar.
“Comrade Kim” centers on Kim Yong-Mi (Han Jong-sim), a small-town coal-miner who dreams of becoming a trapeze artist. After her father lets her move to Pyongyang to join a construction crew, she auditions to become the lead female trapeze artist at the famed Pyongyang circus. She blows the tryout, and the lead male trapeze artist, Pak Jang-phil (Pak Chung-guk), insults her.
The film repeatedly emphasizes Yong-Mi’s social support structure over her personal ambition. As a member of the “working class” – a term exalted throughout the film – she has encouraging comrades and a benevolent foreman, Commander Sok Gun (Ri Yong-Ho), who helps her train. Shortly after her failed audition, when she dances at a festival, her coworkers beam beatific grins. Yong-Mi’s own toothy smile stretches across her face throughout the film, threatening to tear her lips apart.
Up-by-the-bootstraps stories only work if we invest in protagonists’ desires. This is far easier if they are trying to escape an unpleasant existence and operate under their own steam. From Dickens’s ‘Great Expectations’ to Avildsen’s ‘Rocky’ to Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’, effective rags-to-riches films begin with, well, rags. And while protagonists may have help along the way, they must ultimately leave the herd. Not so with Yong-Mi. When, for example, she beats Jang-phil in a cement-mixing contest, it is clear she takes pride in her craft and her working class status. We are asked to invest in Yong-Mi’s individual aspirations even though her life and relationships are already ideal.
Jin Sok Hwang’s cinematography, filled with vivid colors and expansive long shots of the Pyongyang cityscape (geared toward maximum glorification of the city), is admittedly impressive. And the film does, at points, showcase Yong-Mi’s individualism; an arduous third-act training montage illustrates her intense personal drive.
When the film emphasizes Yong-Mi’s solo efforts, it is genuinely affecting. When it suggests she can only succeed with the help of her working class brethren, it is harder to care about her journey. But perhaps a North Korean film that expresses any individualistic sensibilities whatsoever is a minor miracle.
– David Teich