By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

The Torontonian Reviews: Comrade Kim Goes Flying

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.

2 Responses to “The Torontonian Reviews: Comrade Kim Goes Flying”

  1. Libby B. says:

    Two thumbs up!

  2. Rex says:

    For those interested, here’s the links to the TIFF intro and Q&A for Comrade Kim Goes Flying, with co-directors Nicholas Bonner and Anja Daelemans. Oddly enough, fellow director, and North Korean, Kim Gwang Hun, was not in attendance (har-har). Bonner in particular is quite candid about the country and its problems, and his prior documentaries, which are NOT propaganda, are essential viewing to understand the importance of this film in spite of its old-fashioned message, necessary lies, and 1930’s “let’s-put-on-a-show” acting style.

    Intro:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWizwkJ9r2g

    Q&A (2 parts):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLOlhXL_QSs
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Ol5NLOscfw

    The Q&A for this film was easily one of the best among the 20 I attended at TIFF this year, largely thanks to these engaging directors who weren’t afraid to address audience questions about the reality of North Korea head on.

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“I suddenly couldn’t say anything about some of the movies. They were just so terrible, and I’d already written about so many terrible movies. I love writing about movies when I can discover something in them – when I can get something out of them that I can share with people. The week I quit, I hadn’t planned on it. But I wrote up a couple of movies, and I read what I’d written, and it was just incredibly depressing. I thought, I’ve got nothing to share from this. One of them was of that movie with Woody Allen and Bette Midler, Scenes From a Mall. I couldn’t write another bad review of Bette Midler. I thought she was so brilliant, and when I saw her in that terrible production of ‘Gypsy’ on television, my heart sank. And I’d already panned her in Beaches. How can you go on panning people in picture after picture when you know they were great just a few years before? You have so much emotional investment in praising people that when you have to pan the same people a few years later, it tears your spirits apart.”
~ Pauline Kael On Quitting

“My father was a Jerome. My daughter’s middle name is Jerome. But my most vexing and vexed relationship with a Jerome was with Jerome Levitch, the subject of my first book under his stage and screen name, Jerry Lewis.

I have a lot of strong and complex feelings about the man, who passed away today in Las Vegas at age 91. Suffice to say he was a brilliant talent, an immense humanitarian, a difficult boss/interview, and a quixotic sort of genius, as often inspired as insipid, as often tender as caustic.

I wrote all about it in my 1996 book, “King of Comedy,” which is available on Kindle. With all due humility, it’s kinda definitive — the good and the bad — even though it’s two decades old. My favorite review, and one I begged St. Martin’s (unsuccessfully) to put on the paperback jacket, came from “Screw” magazine, which called it “A remarkably fair portrait of a great American asshole.”

Jerry and I met twice while I was working on the book and spoke/wrote to each other perhaps a dozen times. Like many of his relationships with the press and his partners/subordinates, it ended badly, with Jerry hollering profanities at me in the cabin of his yacht in San Diego. I wrote about it in the epilogue to my book, and over the years I’ve had the scene quoted back to me by Steve Martin, Harry Shearer, Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette. Tom Hanks once told me that he had a dinner with Paul Reiser and Martin Short at which Short spent the night imitating Jerry throwing me off the boat.

Jerry was a lot of things: father, husband, chum, businessman, philanthropist, artist, innovator, clown, tyrant. He was at various times in his life the highest-ever-paid performer on TV, in movies, and on Broadway. He raised BILLIONS for charity, invented filmmaking techniques, made perhaps a dozen classic comedies, turned in a terrific dramatic performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” and left the world altered and even enhanced with his time and his work in it.

That’s an estimable achievement and one worth pausing to commemorate.

#RIP to Le Roi du Crazy

~ Biographer Shawn Levy on Jerry Lewis on Facebook