North Korean film authorities must love training montages. You will find conspicuous examples in Pak Chong-song’s
Centre Forward as well as this
strange new North Korean-European co-production. Granted, that is not a very large sampling,
but it is not like there is room for much aesthetic diversity with the
powers-that-be. The production values
have improved, but the dialogue is as stilted as ever in Kim Gwang-hun,
Nicholas Bonner, and Anja Daelemans’ Comrade
Kim Goes Flying (trailer
screens today during the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival.
will quickly realize Flying is a
fantasy because characters constantly sit down to big traditional meals. In between smashing daily production quotas,
coalminer Kim Yong-mi dreams of being an acrobat in the Pyongyang Circus. Her gruff father sounds a little like Casey
Kasem, telling her to “keep her feet on the ground and her head out of the
clouds.” However, when Comrade Kim is
temporarily transferred to the Pyongyang construction brigade, she jumps at a
chance to audition for the Circus School.
the circus elites do not appreciate her raw talent and enthusiasm. Initially deflated, her spirit rebounds when Commander
Sok Gun, the kindly foreman, enlists her to train a troupe of construction
worker-acrobats. Witnessing the salt-of-the-earth
workers’ performance, Pak Jang-phil, the stuck-up trapeze strongman, realizes
how much he and the circus need her. When
she finally gets her shot, will Comrade Kim be able to endure the rigorous
training and make the final cut?
Flying is an odd film, particularly given
the open portrayal of class conflict between the scrappy workers and the snobby
circus performers. You might have thought
the DPRK was a unified workers’ paradise, but evidently not. In that case, just what have the Great
Leader, the Dear Leader, and the Great Successor been doing all this time?
the plus side, Flying is a much more
polished film than Centre Forward. Hwang Jin-sok’s candy-colored cinematography
is rather appealing and the battery of co-directors keeps the action moving
along quite spritely. The brief animated
sequences, adapted from old school North Korean socialist realist wood-cuts (of
which co-director Bonner is considered the world’s leading collector) are also
quite striking. Nevertheless, the
propaganda-laden dialogue, brimming with worker solidarity rhetoric and praise
for the Party, just clunks along like an old jalopy.
recently reviewed Marc Wiese’s harrowing Camp 14—Total Control Zone, one hesitates to single out any of the cast for
praise, in the fear it might somehow be used against them. After all, any bourgeoisie association can be
lethal in the DPRK police state. In
general terms, many of the cast members are veterans of the Pyongyang Circus,
who have real credibility in their acrobatic scenes and transition fairly well
into dramatic acting. Those who really
must be charming for the film to work are indeed quite winning and attractive. One of several cast and crew members
officially designated a “People’s Artist,” Ri Yong-ho is a particularly strong
and engaging presence as the sensitive hardhat, Sok Gun.
women’s stories are largely under-represented in North Korean cinema, so Comrade Kim can be considered
progressive on that front. It is always
nice to see an underdog triumph over adversity, especially when it is rendered
with energy and bright colors.
Indeed, it is good for North Korea watchers to
get a gander at the film, like old Kremlinologists leafing through an issue of Soviet Life. However, presenting it without a reality check
is a tad problematic. In contrast, the
2011 Korean American Film Festival offered a more robust and informed picture
of the notoriously closed country by programming Centre Forward on a double bill with Mads Brügger’s mid-blowing comedic
expose Red Chapel. Comrade
Kim Goes Flying boasts a fresh-faced, highly likable cast, but the didactic
script often undermines their efforts.
Recommended for curious audiences experienced in parsing propaganda, it
screens this afternoon (7/5) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.
Labels: Circus Movies, North Korea, North Korean Cinema, NYAFF '13