Inside North Korean Cinema: Comrade Kim Goes Flying
Friday, September 28, 2012
North Korea is such an insular nation that almost any glimpse of life in the country makes news. This week is the country’s Pyongyang Film Festival, drawing crowds of North Koreans to the rare opportunity to see foreign (but not American) film. But also screening is a film that shows how North Korea would like the world to see it: Comrade Kim Goes Flying.
“Any opportunity to take a peek inside the country, you run,” Manohla Dargis tells Kurt Andersen. The New York Times film critic saw Comrade Kim at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. “Most of us sat there with our mouths open. I was knocked out by how strange it was.” In her review, Dargis called it “both a kitsch hallucination and a disturbing freakout.”
The story of a 28-year-old coal miner who dreams of becoming an aerialist, the film is one of only a couple of collaborations between North Korean and Western filmmakers: a British writer, a Belgian producer, and a North Korean director.
Video: Comrade Kim Goes Flying trailer
It’s shot in bright colors that recall 1950s Hollywood musicals, but the influence of Communist propaganda is just below the surface. The “low-angle shots of the heroine smiling brightly into the sky” remind Dargis of China’s model operas, produced during the Cultural Revolution. “It feels like a Potemkin village put on the screen. There are a lot of shots of abundant quantities of food, food porn almost. It’s not an overt propaganda movie, but it’s very much a message movie: ‘This is a country in which you can have individual dreams and, with the help of collective, achieve those dreams — and be very well fed along the way.’” Given widely reported food shortages over the last several years — recently exacerbated by severe flooding — that’s not a subtle message.
But the film’s guiding influence, Dargis notes, is another kind of message film: the Disney movies where a plucky heroine overcomes obstacles to achieve her dream. “The exaggeration brings to mind animation. I would say every single character spends most of the time onscreen smiling — not just a little smile, but a huge perfect-dentistry smile. I kept thinking everyone’s mouth must be very tired by the end of the day.”
Still, Dargis finds that the country’s guiding principles remain clear. When Kim is finally allowed to become an aerialist, “Her father says ‘I feel like I’m losing my daughter,’ and one of the bureaucrats says, ‘Yes, but she belongs to all of us now.’ So there is something shivery and kind of creepy about where the movie goes.”