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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Who are the critics speaking to?
Nobody seems able to answer the question of how you can make theatre criticism more appealing, more clickworthy. One answer is to be a goddamn flamethrower every week, be a bombthrower, to write scorched-earth reviews. Just be completely hedonistic and ego-driven in your criticism, become a master stylist, and treat everything in front of you onstage as fodder for your most delicious and vicious language. That’s one road. And people may enjoy your writing. The thing that’s sacrificed is any sense of a larger responsibility, and any aesthetic consistency. I don’t think anyone is following that model right now—just being a complete jerk.

Well, Rex Reed is still writing.
Ah. Well, you can also be a standard bearer, and insist that work doesn’t measure up to your high standards. But I think the art makes the standards. I’m not going to sit there and say, “This is the way you do Shakespeare.” I believe that every play establishes its own standards, and our job is to just evaluate it. But everybody’s looking for the formula for how to talk about culture so that people who don’t have any time to read want to read about it. Is there something beyond thumbs-up, thumbs-down criticism? I would hope there’s a way to talk about a theatre event in real time—meaning while it’s still going on—in a way that’s engaging, funny, witty, and evaluates the elements of the thing. But it’s like if you had a friend who was like, “Gee, are you working out? You look great. But that’s a terrible haircut.” Nobody wants that person around.
~ Time Out’s 17-Year Theatre Critic, David Cote, Upon His Exit

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