Friday, July 05, 2013

NYAFF ’13: Comrade Kim Goes Flying

The 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 here), which screens today during the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival.

Viewers 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.

Unfortunately, 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?

Obviously, 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?

On 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.

Having 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.

Evidently, 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 ChapelComrade 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.