If you haven’t yet decided on your summer holiday destination, you might want to consider the fertile fields, magnificent mountain ranges and awe-inspiring architecture of North Korea. Presenting the country like a utopia of national solidarity and economic prosperity, Comrade Kim Goes Flying (2012) is the first Western-financed film made entirely within the North’s shuttered, secretive stateliness. Filmed like a Technicolor throwback to the kitsch charm and high-spirited camaraderie of post-war era productions, Comrade Kim follows the jingoistic dreams and aspirations of the titular Kim Yong-mi (Han Jong-sim).
Despite longing for a life as an acrobat (where she’d be able to soar through the air like a dove), Kim remains perfectly happy working alongside her father as a miner. Everyone within the mine meets their quotas, yet Kim’s exertion far surpasses her colleges, with her exuberance and unwavering work ethic earning her a promotion to a construction site in Pyongyang. It’s an exciting development, not least because it means she can see her heroine Ri Su-yon (Kim Un-yong) perform at the city’s apparently ‘world famous’ circus.
The first question posed by this Korean oddity is in regards to just how much of Comrade Kim Goes Flying is a stand-alone film, and how much is merely state propaganda. Whilst there’s no clear underlying political message being shrewdly drip-fed to its audience, there’s little denying that this joint production takes every opportunity to promote North Korea as a haven of teamwork and economic prowess. Presented in the same bright and overly enthusiastic style of old Soviet cinema, it’s near impossible to ignore Comrade Kim’s blatant message about the idealism of industry and production. What’s more, it’s also hard not to assume that the film is some sort of ironic spoof on the North’s state-controlled media.
Comrade Kim is even more notable for being the first North Korean film to star a young female protagonist. With this in mind, whilst Yong-mi’s story may be both incredibly contrived and heavy-handed, this ultra-naive tale works best as a sickly sweet, candy-coloured adventure, supplemented by Kim’s contagious desire to “Put on a show” and celebrate the benefits of optimism. At its worst, it could equally be viewed as a technically-inept and hideously ostentatious mix of gaudy set pieces and cynically engineered dialogue. One thing is certain – Comrade Kim needs to be seen to be believed.
The 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival takes place from 19-30 June, 2013. For more of our EIFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.