North Korea on My Mind

Comrade Kim Goes Flying is the story of a young coal miner who dreams of becoming a trapeze artist with the circus. The story follows her from the coal mine in the picturesque countryside, to the city where she fails to make the grade for the circus. Resigned to giving up her dream, she goes to work at a building site, but when her colleagues find out about her goal, they encourage her to try again. The ever resourceful Comrade Kim mobilizes the building brigade to put on their own circus performance. When a trapeze artist spots her doing aerials, her life changes again and she gets another chance to achieve her dream of flying through the air – but only if she works very hard.

Comrade-Kim-Yong-Mi-played-by-Han-Jong-Sim
A still from Comrade Kim Goes Flying

The film is unusual in many ways: There’s no kissing, there’s no violence, and the dramatic highlight is a cement-mixing contest, by hand, not machine. The camera lingers on the actors’ faces as they speak their lines, emphasizing not so much their words as their personalities. Visually, the film is a feast of gorgeous retro Technicolor, occasionally interrupted by charming linocut artwork used for short animated sequences. The plot is straightforward fairy tale, but it is well-written, it holds your interest and there are some genuinely good jokes. The film is also the first ever collaboration between North Korean and Western filmmakers.

North Korea is, of course, not your average cuddly country, so it was difficult to put aside the images more commonly associated with the country as I waited for the film to start. At first, I kept looking for the political messages, the propaganda, and the rote homages to the Dear Leader, but the humorous script and the splendid female lead charmed me and after a while I relaxed my guard and started to enjoy the film. When it came, the single reference to the Dear Leader went nearly unnoticed. At the end of the film, I walked away smiling with an image of somewhere over the hills and far away, a place where people trust and support each other even though they may sometimes seem a little gruff on the surface. A land where everyone smiles. As I said, it’s a fairy tale.

If you are intrigued and have 20 minutes to spare, this interview with Anja Daelemans and Nicholas Bonner, the Belgian and British producers of the film, is a good place to start. The interview was recorded at the Tromsø International Film Festival in mid-January. I saw the film the following week at the International Film Festival Rotterdam where it was well received by audiences.


To continue the North Korean theme, let me point you to Kim Jong-il Looking at Things, a photo blog by João Rocha. The blog first went online in October 2010 and soon became an Internet sensation (where was I?). The format is very simple. Rocha selected photographs of Kim Jong-il issued by the Korean Central News Agency and added a very short, dry comment to hilarious impact. The best of the blog has been published in book format by Jean Boîte Éditions in Paris.

Looking at a glass bottle
Looking at a glass bottle

I read about all this only two or three months ago on Visual Culture Blog written by Marco Bohr, a photographer and lecturer at Loughborough University in the UK. One of my favorite reads, Bohr started his blog a couple of years ago as a way to vent ideas that didn’t fit into his PhD thesis on Japanese photography in the 1990s, but these days he analyzes and writes about all sorts of images from all over the world. It’s recommended reading.

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4 thoughts on “North Korea on My Mind

  1. I would never have gone to see Comrade Kim Goes Flying – but if it should ever reach the shores of Italy, I will now be the first in the queue! And the “looking at” photos are just wonderful.

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    1. I didn’t actually plan to see the film. I just turned up at the last minute ticket booth and asked the guy what he had and what he could recommend. It was fate.

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  2. Glad to see those wacky Northerners are making an addition to art!
    The photography of the two cities looks interesting!

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