One missile is a failure—a heavily promoted satellite disintegrating soon after its launch from a rural North Korean pad located five hours by train from the capital city of Pyongyang. The other is a cinematic rocket known as Comrade Kim Goes Flying, soaring free of the 38th Parallel and reaching audiences as far away as Toronto as well as South Korean crowds at the upcoming Busan International Film Festival.
As the world practices its horsey dance thanks to South Korea’s K-pop phenomenon PSY and his smash hit song "Gangnam Style," from the forbidden world of Pyongyang comes a pop movie moment, DPRK style; a new film six years in the making that shows North Korea in a surprisingly gentle light.
Belgian producer Anja Daelemans and British filmmaker Nicholas Bonner collaborated with North Korean director Kim Gwang-hun and an ensemble of North Korean screenwriters and crew to make history in the world’s most reclusive nation. Comrade Kim, the tale of coal miner Kim Yong-mi (Han Jong-sim) who aspires to join the national circus as a great trapeze artist, is the first North Korean movie to be entirely financed by Western producers and edited outside the country.
A day after the highly publicized Asian Film Summit brought together major Hollywood producers like Harvey Weinstein and superstars like Jackie Chan to help promote future Asian film business at Toronto’s recently opened Shangri-La Hotel, Booner, Daelemans and I meet a few blocks away from the luxury tower, inside the lobby of the modest Marriot Residence Inn, a far less showy venue, closer to the DPKR spirit. Bonner and Daelemans are all grins; still reeling from the enthusiastic response at the film’s debut public screening and the Toronto crowd’s warm cheers after they read a thank-you letter from the lead actress Han. But producing the film was no laughing matter—in a land where outsiders are frequently looked upon as spies, Bonner and Daelemans took the job of movie producers to risky heights. "You’re dealing with North Koreans and you’re arguing and you’re having ups and downs," Bonner says. "There’s a saying in North Korea that you go from the mountain to more mountains and that’s true. But in the end, you’re dealing with filmmakers and having these great debates about this female character we created."
In Comrade Kim, real-life trapeze performer Han Jong-sim makes a lovable heroine in a pearly white tracksuit—something of a Communist flashback to Doris Day, perhaps with even more pep. The film reveals the boulevards of Pyongyang as traffic-free and members of the Pyongyang Trapeze Troupe as dedicated performers, and it’s all enhanced with bursts of animation and a heavy dollop of propaganda featuring happy miners and steel factory workers.
It’s an interesting time to release a North Korean movie. International sanctions remain in place due to the military actions of Pyongyang generals. Yet, government officials make an unusual and very public request to South Korea for food aid to help deal with ongoing famine struggles. It’s a challenge for those in the business of making movies.
Yet, despite the tremendous challenges, Bonner and Daelemans are ambassadors of capitalist entertainment, making a movie they hope will be a financial success with international audiences. Acting as almost de facto North Korea representatives, they have something to discuss about the secret nation other than dictator tirades, ballistic missiles, and uranium enrichment facilities.They’re also the first filmmakers to introduce digital technology to North Korean film crews, who have never shot 35mm film with sync sound recording or edited a film digitally using AVID technology.
Daelemans describes the production as a three-step process: from a 45-day shoot in Pyongyang and a rough edit; digital editing in Beijing with the North Korean crew, and finally, the locked edit in Belgium with a Belgian crew. It’s three levels of translation with an emphasis on maintaining the type of melodrama and humor that appeals to North Korean audiences.
"We did not want to put our European stamp on it," Daelemans adds. "We did not want to make it a Euro-North Korean pudding. We kept going back to the basics of the story and the universal feelings and emotions that everyone in the world can understand about a girl power movie."
If Bonner has his way, Comrade Kim will open the doors to Kim Jong-un’s isolated nation, boost its fledgling tourist industry, start a new era of cultural exchange and perhaps, introduce entertainment capitalism to a country that only knows propaganda.
It’s a teetering pile of goals, especially when considering the additional requirements of government censors, the limitations of the Korean film industry, and the additional steps of finishing the movie in more high-tech editing labs in China and Belgium.
Still, Bonner is the rare Westerner who’s a true NK expert; a regular visitor to Pyongyang thanks to his Beijing travel company Koryo Tours, one of only 300 foreign residents in a population of 22 million people. Bonner is also the co-producer of the documentaries Crossing The Line, the story of U.S. Army defector James Dresnok living in North Korea, A State Of Mind, and The Game Of Their Lives, as well as an advisor to the Pyongyang International Film Festival. If anyone can change DKPR propaganda into Red-White-and-Blue capitalist moviemaking, it’s him.
Perhaps Kim Jong-un wants to open up the isolated country and Western-produced movies like Comrade Kim are just the first step. After all, he has Disney characters perform at concerts, and his nickname is Kim Jong-fun.
In response to the K-pop mania originating from below the Joint Security Area, DPRK supreme leader Kim Jong-un and government leaders released a "Gangnam Style" parody video to ridicule a South Korean presidential candidate; all while the 29-year-old head of state falls victim to his own Gangnam spoof, "Kim Jong Style."
Comrade Kim followed up its successful screenings in Toronto with an extraordinary homecoming showing Sept. 24 at its own Pyongyang Film Festival and will appear starting October 4th at South Korea’s Busan International Film Festival with Busan officials also inviting North Korean cast and crew to attend the festival screenings. It’s an amazing feat of cultural diplomacy as Kim Jong-un wraps his first year in power since the December 2011 death of his father, Kim Jong-il.
Of course, there are some questions Bonner can’t or won’t answer. Does Kim Jong-un-approve of Comrade Kim? More importantly, who attracts larger crowds, South Korea’s K-pop superstar PSY or North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un?
One thing is for sure, finally, there’s a DPRK missile that really hits the target.