Comrade Kim Goes Flying is a fairytale that grew out of an idea that Nicholas Bonner and Anja Daelemans first shared over a glass of whisky on a winter’s evening.
Comrade Kim Goes Flying is the result of cross-pollination between a specialist in North Korea, a specialist in making movies, and a North Korean producer who especially loved films. This unique collaboration allowed us to make a film based on universal values and the belief of an individual in achieving a dream.
The film is set in North Korea and tells the story of a young Korean woman who wishes to reach for her own destiny, without relying on a central male character and without the objective of glorifying the country. Her nemesis the circus strong man Pak Jang Phil (and his mother) are simply won over by her talent, her beauty, and her individuality. Comrade Kim Yong Mi wants to be a trapeze artist because she wants to fly, not because she wants to win national glory. The context of an individual fulfilling their own personal dreams is a significant departure from the traditions of North Korean cinema.
North Korean scripts are written according to their perceived reality and deliver a clear parable on how to live one’s life for the benefit of the country. The script we had written did not tick any of the boxes, it was a film of pure entertainment, no underlying ideological message, no strong male role, a girl too old to become an acrobat, coalminers do not join the circus etc. the list went on. It was looking like Comrade Kim goes Flying would never fly.
Our Korean producer Ryom Mi Hwa (her father was a cinematographer) was close to giving in with the project but purposely left the script in the warm waiting room of her office building in Pyongyang to observe people’s reaction. A week later one her co- workers approached her and asked if she could read the whole script as she wanted to know what happened to the main character! It was enough for Ryom Mi Hwa to make one last effort and by another stroke of fate she was introduced to director Kim Gwang Hun, whose father had directed a film with Ryom Mi Hwa’s father and he and his studio agreed to make the film.
Because of the physical requirements we had to chose between casting actors who could be trained as acrobats or acrobats who could learn acting rolls. After an intense casting process we cast Han Jong Sim and Pak Chung Guk, both acrobats from the Pyongyang Circus. They would bring the qualities not only of physical performance but of youth and fun to the North Korean cinema.
Han Jong Sim and Pak Chung Guk were given four months intensive training in acting but it was the wonderful support of the professional actors during the shoot who helped them develop their characters. A number of the actors in the film are famous in North Korea and normally would only take lead roles but were convinced by the unusual story to take supporting roles.
Much of Nicholas’ and Anja’s work was to guide the film towards comedy, romance and to make it as close to a magical fairytale as possible. For Nick, Anja and Gwang Hun it involved working around their cultural differences to allow the making of a story with universal values.
“Not only me, but also the whole crew love this film. Looking at all the crew busy with filming, as a director I feel very proud of myself and I feel a passion to make this film as good as possible” Kim Gwang Hun (North Korean director).
Whilst it was a very professional atmosphere it was also a great team of people clearly working in the profession they love and respect. Joking, teasing and laughing on set was throughout the shoot and made for a great atmosphere that filtered into the film- the spirit represented in the film by the construction brigade was in reality reflected by the crew.
“All go here, really is quite wonderful to see 5 years of work coming together ...remember sitting at your home working on the script- it has changed somewhat but in essence remains a simple romantic story of girl power. It all appears absurdly normal, being part of a groups of 40 crew members all doing their specific jobs, working together to get the most out of the scene- and it is only when you realise that we kicked this all off and then look at the environment and politics that we are working in does it seem so fantastical.”
Nicholas Bonner to Anja Daelemans before she came out to join in the shoot. (No email access in North Korea so this was sent from Beijing).
As in anywhere in the world there is a fascination with watching films being made and DPRK is no different. Members of the public surround the set and in particular when there are famous film stars present such as Ri Yong Ho (Commander Sok Gun). He is the ‘George Clooney’ of North Korean cinema and on set would draw a crowd of women anxious to see their beau.
The initial idea was to use hand drawn animations to introduce a Western audience to Korea, the location of the country and its landscape but this developed further when we struck upon the idea of animating North Korean linocuts. Using western animators we found we could do more than just introduce landscapes – we could also reflect Comrade Kim Yong Mi’s emotional journey.
The Circus in DPRK
The film was set at the Pyongyang Circus on Kwangbok Street. This unusual structure was finished in 1989 with seating for 3,500 with all the facilities from training rooms to a multi-functioned arena that can hydraulically sink underground to be replaced by an ice rink or swimming pool. At 4pm twice a week there is an hour and a half performance and is very popular. The majority of people visit either as military units, school classes or with their work units or simply as a family. The show involves magic, juggling, balance, clowns and high wire acts but the highlight is the trapeze. The North Korean acrobats are recognised as world class. Both Yong Mi and Jang Phil have performed in Europe several trips as well as been in competition at the major circus festival in Monaco.