The vast majority of North Korea’s propaganda-heavy productions are pretty much unwatchable for international viewers.
But there is one film that gets it right.
This is the story of Comrade Kim Goes Flying: the North Korean movie that’s actually good.
A Bit of Context
A layover from leader Kim Jong-il’s infamous efforts to develop North Korea’s film industry, Comrade Kim Goes Flying is the first international co-production in the country’s history.
Released in 2012 (a year after Kim’s death), the film is directed by Belgian and UK nationals Anja Daelemans and Nicholas Bonner, alongside North Korean director Kim Gwang Hun.
According to the directors, it’s a fictional film that’s absolutely not intended “to give any specific insight into the country”, but rather tell a “light, entertaining and very enjoyable” story.
A North Korean Cinderella Story
Comrade Kim Goes Flying stars Han Jong-sim as countryside coal miner Kim Yong-mi. She dreams of becoming a world-class acrobat, and one day she gets the chance when she goes to the big city: Pyongyang.
Right from the start, the film is a genuinely uplifting and heartwarming tale of dreaming big. Comrade Kim’s rags to riches story is filled with humour, bright energy and a big heart, and it makes this movie a really endearing watch.
All the characters are so nice to one another, the visuals are vibrant and colourful, and the acrobatics are absolutely gorgeous. At its core, it’s a fairly simple story that we see from Hollywood all the time, but the fluffy and uplifting atmosphere is what makes it such a genuinely enjoyable film.
On her way to the city, Kim encounters all manner of lovely, kind-hearted passers-by. Every character in the film is so nice to one another that it’s hard not to crack a smile – even if it is all a bit of a show.
But still, some of her cheeky antics along the way and when she arrives in Pyongyang make for a good few laughs, from hustling a lift from a nearby motorist to sneaking past a security guard to get into the circus.
So it’s not all a prim, inhuman show of perfection as so many other North Korean movies are. There’s a sense of real, human emotion and fun here, and that’s what sets it apart from the country’s stereotypically robotic propaganda.
While in the city, she encounters professional acrobat Pak Jang Phil, who initially insults her by saying that “coal miners belong underground” after she fails a trapeze audition.
Still, like all fluffy comedies, it’s a meet-cute for a relationship that will later blossom, as the pair keep accidentally running into each other again and again.
Eventually, after a couple of customary montages of production targets being met on construction sites, Pak tries to prove his worth to Kim in the only way possible: a cement-mixing race.
See, that’s the thing about this movie. On the surface, there’s actually not much that sets it apart from sweet, uplifting Hollywood movies. But from time to time, there are things so stereotypically North Korean that it’s difficult not to find it a little strange.
Pak doesn’t manage to beat Kim in the cement-mixing race, and his push for her affections goes on.
Meanwhile, Kim tries to prove her own worth to her male construction colleagues by going around arm-wrestling them. She loses, but her colleagues pretend that they’ve lost, because they see the strength in her heart.
In that, there’s a good bit of girl power that runs right the way through the movie. She consistently rejects Pak, stands up to the men on her construction site who make fun of her, and eventually goes on to achieve her dreams of becoming an acrobat.
That’s all part of the film’s uplifting, wide-eyed Cinderella story, and it really works to put a big smile on your face.
After his latest rejection, Pak follows Kim home to the countryside, where she has returned to work as a coal miner, desperately trying to convince her to come back to the city and become an acrobat.
Kim refuses his offer at first, saying she wants to stay in her hometown and work hard at the coal mine, as well as to look after her father. But after a bit of convincing, she changes her mind.
Then, after the whole town manages to convince her reluctant father to let her go off to Pyongyang once again, she finally achieves her childhood dreams of becoming a world-class acrobat.
Yes, it’s a bit of a cheesy ending, but at the end of an hour and a bit of smiley, uplifting fun, it’s a really nice finale to what is a genuinely endearing movie.
A Little Perspective
Of course, the fact that I find this film so genuinely endearing is evidence that Comrade Kim Goes Flying does exactly what North Korea wants it to.
It may be an international co-production, but the story and backing is all in the hands of the North Korean government. Presenting an endearing, bright image of the country is exactly what it wants to do – even if it’s far from the truth.
Although it’s not as heavy-handed as every other North Korean movie, the propaganda arm of Comrade Kim Goes Flying is blatant throughout.
Forced lines of dialogue like: “everything can be achieved with revolutionary spirit” to “you have exceeded today’s quota by 120%!” do undermine the film’s otherwise refreshingly liberal approach.
You’ll also see characters wearing badges honouring Eternal President Kim Il-sung in pretty much every scene, and regular allusions to the might of the working classes.
What’s more, the money that I’ve paid to watch this film may go into the hands of an oppressive, totalitarian regime.
Comrade Kim Goes Flying is a genuinely lovely film, and I really think it’s worth the watch, but it in no way flies as an excuse for North Korea’s dictatorial regime.
You can rent or buy the film on Vimeo here, and I do think you’ll enjoy it. It’s a light, funny and enjoyable comedy that doesn’t espouse any message of evil, even if it is all in the name of an oppressive regime.
All in all, Comrade Kim Goes Flying is a delightful watch. The acting may be a little wooden by our standards, the dialogue may be a bit forced at times, and there are further considerations about the reality that it ignores throughout.
But it’s by far and away the best North Korean film ever made, and one that’s genuinely delightful for all. Here’s the trailer for your enjoyment:
All images are copyright of Koryo Group and Another Dimension of an Idea.