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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“When Bay keeps these absurd plot-gears spinning, he’s displaying his skill as a slick, professional entertainer. But then there are the images of motion—I hesitate to say, of things in motion, because it’s not clear how many things there are in the movie, instead of mere digital simulations of things. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that there’s a car chase through London, seen from the level of tires, that could have gone on for an hour, um, tirelessly. What matters is that the defenestrated Cade saves himself by leaping from drone to drone in midair like a frog skipping among lotus pads; that he and Vivian slide along the colossal, polished expanses of sharply tilting age-old fields of metal like luge Olympians. What matters is that, when this heroic duo find themselves thrust out into the void of inner space from a collapsing planet, it has a terrifyingly vast emptiness that Bay doesn’t dare hold for more than an instant lest he become the nightmare-master. What matters is that the enormous thing hurtling toward Earth is composed in a fanatical detail that would repay slow-motion viewing with near-geological patience. Bay has an authentic sense of the gigantic; beside the playful enormity of his Transformerized universe, the ostensibly heroic dimensions of Ridley Scott’s and Christopher Nolan’s massive visions seem like petulant vanities.”
~ Michael Bay Gives Richard Brody A Tingle

How do you see film evolving in this age of Netflix?

I thought the swing would be quicker and more violent. There have been two landmark moments in the history of French film. First in 1946, with the creation of the CNC under the aegis of Malraux. He saved French cinema by establishing the advance on receipts and support fund mechanisms. We’re all children of this political invention. Americans think that the State gives money to French films, but they’re wrong. Through this system, films fund themselves!

The other great turning point came by the hand of Jack Lang in the 1980s, after the creation of Canal+. While television was getting ready to become the nemesis of film, he created the decoder, and a specific broadcasting space between film and television, using new investments for film. That once again saved French film.

These political decisions are important. We’re once again facing big change. If our political masters don’t take control of the situation and new stakeholders like Netflix, Google and Amazon, we’re headed for disaster. We need to create obligations for Internet service providers. They can’t always be against film. They used to allow piracy, but now that they’ve become producers themselves, they’re starting to see things in a different light. This is a moment of transition, a strong political act needs to be put forward. And it can’t just be at national level, it has to happen at European level.

Filmmaker Cédric Klapisch