Comrade Kim Goes Flying/Nicholas Bonner

In light of Sony’s decision to pull The Interview, Director Talk is republishing our 2013 interview with Nicholas Bonner, director of Comrade Kim Goes Flying–the first North Korean film coproduced with Western partners. We would also like to stand behind Emily Best, CEO and cofounder of Seed&Spark, who is quoted on Indiewire as saying, “I would think Sony COULD, if it really wanted to, release “The Interview” on VOD and possibly break every record ever set for VOD – fully utilizing the systems that are already in place to bypass theaters altogether and go straight to the eager fans. (Seed&Spark would host it.) They could make the year of the arthouses in this country who are publicly saying they would show the film in their theaters. Sony could use “The Interview” to create opportunities for other platforms and outlets, to stand by their project, to highlight how many other models their are for distribution. Instead, it seems their inclination is to hit up the insurance company and re-coup financial losses.”

Conceived, written, and directed by a battery of Western and North Korean filmmakers, Comrade Kim Goes Flying is the first North Korean fiction film co-produced with Western partners and completely edited abroad. With a charming sweetness reminiscent of My Fair Lady, it tells the tale of a young coal miner from the country who pursues her unlikely dreams of becoming a trapeze artist in the big city. In candy-color pinks and greens, the film is both a monumental achievement to cultural engagment with North Korea and great fun to watch. •Availability: The producers are currently looking for North American distributors.

DT: You made the film for a North Korean audience.  Are Americans getting it?

NB:   At some screenings it’s just individuals sitting and watching on their own, but at Lincoln Center, in New York City, I had an amazing audience—it was a shared experience. The audience was almost interactive, laughing and commenting, bouncing the film between themselves as if they had been the ones who had made it.

DT: There were a lot of non-New Yorkers in that audience, too. At the press conference after the screening, one of the questions came from a sailor in the US Navy.

NB:  When he stood up and said that his unit had recently come close to being stationed in South Korea for a showdown with North Korea, I was thinking, “What’s this sailor going to say now?”  But all he said was, “Comrade Kim is the cutest Communist I’ve ever seen.” The audience really understood the film and viewed it in the context of how it would be seen by North Korean eyes, not a propaganda film but one telling the story of an individual struggling to achieve her dream.

DT:  You describe the making of the film with a Korean saying, “Over the mountains are mountains.”  What mountains did you have to cross to get this film made?

NB:  The scriptwriting phase was tough.  After that it was relatively easier going. We didn’t want to make a Euromash film; we wanted to make a North Korean film but with a different storyline.  The difficulty was getting the cultural differences. The North Korean director Kim Gwang Hun had previously only made war films, and the North Korean scriptwriters had never written fairy tales, so getting them to understand a story about a girl who wants to fulfill her dreams was a big process.  We argued a lot.

The film was initially conceived  by three friends—myself, Anja Daelemans (Belgian codirector and coproducer), and the North Korean I made my documentaries with, Ryom Mi Hwa. The three of us wanted to do a girl power story.  We were very clear about what we wanted, and for two years we worked with the North Korean scriptwriters. It was all done unofficially, and when it came time to submit the screenplay, the studio didn’t want to make the film. They all said, “This is not a North Korean trope. It doesn’t fit the way we tell a story”—which is simply films for political ends or for glorifying the Leaders.  Ours was the story of a girl as an individual wanting to achieve her dreams for herself, not for the Party or Leaders.

Ryom Mi Hwa was disappointed but still believed in the script. She left a copy with the doorman to see what people would make of it. (It was probably the first market research in the country!) It was winter, and it was cold outside, so people popped in to warm up at the doorman’s office. They flipped through the script and told the doorman they wanted to hear this story. Ryom was inspired and took the script back to the studio, saying it had to be made. By an extraordinary coincidence, she was introduced to the director Kim Gwang Hun; his father was a director and had worked with Ryom’s father, who was a cinematographer, and this was enough for him to take on the film.

DT:  But he wanted to do it as a sports story.

NB:  He’d worked in the military studio and all his previous films had been war films, so it was a problem not with North Korea but one of dealing with men. He had never made a romantic comedy before – he wanted a male lead young enough to join the circus as a student and to follow him during his training, with a few problems thrown in for good measure. This scenario is a classic North Korean sports film of people sacrificing themselves for their country, and it was far removed from what we wanted, which was North Korea’s first ever fictional film for entertainment only. We needed to get in touch with his “female side” and to fully understand our story, which is why I stayed with him for the shoot. He eventually came round and understood what we were after and how to capture the subtleties on film.  Some of his solutions seemed almost Victorian to us, but it was fun pushing him as far as he could go as a director.

We worked with Korean scriptwriters and asked them to fill in the story, to handle the plot of a coalminer wanting to fly.  It led to some surprises and cultural differences. For example, Anja and I would never have thought of a cement mixing competition as the venue for a battle between the chief romantic leads. But it worked. The story of a man using bread coupons to try and bribe his way into the circus was also written by a North Korean.

A Western audience can easily make the mistake of thinking that the film is about socialist values when in fact it is about North Korean workers valuing their working-class backgrounds. For example, when Comrade Kim goes to the city, her grandmother tells her to take her fancy shoes so she won’t look like a country girl in the big city. And when she’s on the bus, her jaw drops when she sees the city sights for the first time.

DT:  That sequence was absolutely charming.

NB:  But we’ve had people think, Oh you put in those shots of the city because North Korea wanted them for propaganda.  No!  It would be like having me going from the countryside to London, and my jaw would drop when I saw Big Ben. That would prove to an audience that I’d never been to London.

DT:  In a way, this film is an extension of your life work in Korea. Can you explain your fascination with North Korea and what you hope to achieve with your work there, including your filmmaking and your travel company, Koryo Tours?

NB:  Perhaps the fascination is that if you commit yourself to a project in North Korea, you can get some wonderful results.  I think with North Korea we have two choices:  one is to critically engage, and the second is to turn our backs.  Anja and I engaged with North Korean filmmakers, and the film is the best demonstration of this process.

DT:  But what was your personal fascination with North Korea?

NB: I was trained as a landscape architect and taught at Leeds Metropolitan University. In 1993 I visited Asia on a design study trip and ended up staying. Actually, my first trip to North Korea was not planned; I was playing soccer with a North Korean in Beijing, and on his return to Pyongyang he asked me and my colleague Joshua Green to help him set up travel for Westerners. Joshua and I set up a travel company and visited most months, and during that time I got to know more and more about the country and the people. I started making documentaries in 2000 with Daniel Gordon, and that brought a new dimension to my work. In this incredibly controlled environment it was great to be able to see the Koreans as individuals.  When we worked on a film product, it was with people who loved film and were professional in what they did.

What’s important is being able to split the individual from the politics. Unlike the documentaries that were made for the outside world, Comrade Kim goes Flying was primarily for a North Korean audience. It was not a mainstream North Korean film but rather a taboo breaker, their first girl power movie. Our heroine follows her own dreams without a strong man behind her or without any support from the government or leaders.

DT:  I understand that filmmaking is different in North Korea.  Is filmgoing different as well?

NB:  In the cities you can go as an individual, or you might be invited with your work unit.  In the countryside, the projectionist picks up the film from a central distribution point for the county and then takes the film around the local cinemas, urban centers, and cooperative farm cinemas. When that tour is complete, the film is delivered to the next collection point, and then it’s shown there by another projectionist.

DT:  How many prints are currently in North Korea?

NB:     There are two prints in Korea.  One’s in the city, and I think the other one is doing the rounds in the countryside.  It’ll be a slow process, but at some point it will be broadcast.  I recently got this email from a North Korean: “The film is being screened at cinemas all over the country. As the heroine of the film comes from the countryside, many of them often write fan letters to her. Young girls are saying they want to be like the heroine.  And the circus said an increased number of people are applying.  It’s increased almost double compared to last year.”  We took our lead actress, Han Jong Sim, to the Udine Far East Film Festival, and the packed audience of 1,300 gave her a standing ovation.  It’s on YouTube, so do take a look.  She said it was the most delightful thing that ever happened to her and the experience of a lifetime.

DT:  Both she and Pak Chung Guk, who plays her romantic lead, are real-life acrobats, not actors?

NB: That’s right. The people surrounding them are actors, who also took on the role of nursing them through how to act, how to bring the most out of their roles. They had four months’ training before we started shooting in 2010, and it was really lovely on set.  It was a nice group of people to work with.

DT:  You could tell.  It came across onscreen.

NB:  The woman who was the coldest—the woman who plays the mother-in-law—is actually a professional comic actress.  She’s quite tough, and she’s quite hard, but the other ones were so soft, so very, very gentle.  The guy who plays Comrade Kim’s commander is the George Clooney of North Korea.  He was forever helping them with things, bringing around tea.  It was a nice working group.  You don’t make a film like that if people are not individuals.

DT:  The score was also a joint Korean-Western project.

NB: They’re not very good at music design.  When they use music, it’s to signal, Here is danger, BR-BR-BR, and now here’s happiness, la la la.  But we wanted to use sound design.  This is the first project ever edited outside the country, and we got an amazing sound design guy, who went to North Korea to speak to the North Koreans about instrumentation and then to record the individual instruments.  I took a gayageum, that beautiful Korean harp sound, and he worked that up, too.  When the dance scene comes up and Comrade Kim is leading the dance in her pink dress and Comrade Pak is watching her with this look on his face, we use a traditional North Korean song, but we added some bass and kind of funked it up a bit, so suddenly the North Koreans are saying, “Wow.”

DT:  You described the film as “re-creating the universal theme of individual self-fulfillment in a North Korean setting.”  But North Korea is a place where this kind of self-fulfillment without regard to party or country is frowned upon.  Was making this film in a place like that provocation on your part?

NB:  Someone asked me that question at the very end of the Q&A.   I said, “I still live in China and I still work in North Korea.  That’s a very lovely question and I leave you to work that out yourselves.”  If you’re talking about pushing borders, this film’s a taboo breaker, there’s no doubt about it.  If people see it that way, it’s lovely, but I’m just amazed that the film is being  shown.  I think there was never any intention on our behalf to do anything but make an entertaining movie.  If it does more, how wonderful is that?

DT:  It showed in South Korea and the South Koreans loved it.

NB:  Of any country that knows North Korea, it’s South Korea. We were amazed by the fact that the South Korean government allowed it to be shown—probably because it’s a nonpolitical film—and that it had been accepted at the Busan International Film Festival, probably the best film festival in Asia. At the press conference in Busan, the first comment we got from a South Korean was, “I guess mothers-in-law are the same wherever you go.”  It was wonderful.

DT:  Where do you go from here?

NB:  The problem for filmmakers today is distribution. You spend six years making a film, and then the problem is getting it distributed so people can see it. If anyone has any bright ideas about how we get the film out, I’d love to hear from them.  But for now the film is still very much a live beast.  We’re constantly finding new reactions from people outside, and we’re finding new reactions from people in North Korea.  For the first time there’s Facebook in North Korea, and they’re fascinated with how people in the West see the film, both the good and the bad of it. And I think that goes back to my original purpose:  Engagement is an amazingly powerful tool. It’s been amazing for both the outside world and the North Koreans, and I really stand by it.

DT:  And I really admire you for making it.  Congratulations, and good luck.

Copyright © Director Talk 2013

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