Comrade Kim Goes Flying is unique in the truest meaning of the word: it is the first ever Western-financed film to be made entirely in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The comedy of a blue-collar coal miner pursuing her dreams of becoming a trapeze artist, Comrade Kim arrives in the West as wacky cultural camp with a side-order of historical significance.
According to Comrade Kim Goes Flying, North Korea is a happy place; a utopia where everything is possible, everything is colorful, and everything is great. Of course, as our uncensored Google searches reveal, this is an expectedly false representation of the totalitarian state: the regime has a horrifically poor record on human rights, and the hardships endured are very real and very awful. In other words, to see this dystopia depicted so positively makes for some extremely bizarre cinema.
Regardless, the film is still a film – something to critique and watch and enjoy and discuss. In that sense I liken Comrade Kim Goes Flying to Triumph of the Will, where peripheral, international audiences understand the film’s context from an informed perspective on global affairs, while local subjects (at the time of its release) whoop and cheer from beginning to end. Watching Comrade Kim feels like voyeurism, but this film has been exported overseas in hopes that it will renew faith in North Korean values. It doesn’t, obviously, despite the film’s hardest attempts to show infectious smiles, bountiful cornucopias of delicious food, serene pastures, and an invigorating nightlife. The world has never seen North Korea and its people so cheerful and inviting.
We watch films like these with two pairs of eyes: one to consume the film as it is, the other to go wide in disbelief. Like Triumph of the Will, the world won’t watch Comrade Kim for entertainment. The laughs – the ironic scoffs of “yeah, right” – occur mainly whenever a character mentions the potential of the working class, moments where protagonist Kim feels down or unable to accomplish her goal. This is modern-day propaganda meant to inspire the lowest class of North Koreans, not captivate audiences privy to the oppression.
Based on its intended merits, Comrade Kim is a banal, over-the-top comedy. As North Korea isn’t known for its cultural critiques or social satire, the “real” jokes are all physical, never straying from slap-stick humor or silly gesticulations. Knowing audiences will laugh elsewhere, as the film features some “hilarious” meta-comedy when it reinforces the strength of the working class. The message here is clear: labor and effort will always prevail, and anyone with the motivation to become something bigger will succeed in the end. This is the American dream in a North Korean nightmare, but that’s okay: with no swearing, violence, or otherwise negativity whatsoever, the film is (twisted and ironic) fun for the whole family.
Had TIFF placed this film in its “Midnight Madness” programme, a section reserved for visceral horror flicks and genre mash-ups, I imagine the take-home response would have been a welcome respite from the average thrills and chills those audiences have grown accustomed to. Comrade Kim is no average movie: its “WTF” impression is stronger than most anything screened in cinema’s witching hour, as real-world oppression is masked here as something idyllic.