Fairytale Korea move

Producers Nick Bonner and Anja Daelemans talk about their unique co-production Comrade Kim Goes Flying.

by Amber Wilkinson

Han Jong Sim as Comrade Kim -  'A North Korean audience have never seen anything quite like this before - they know this is a fairytale, their first one.'
Han Jong Sim as Comrade Kim - 'A North Korean audience have never seen anything quite like this before - they know this is a fairytale, their first one.'
The title Comrade Kim Goes Flying, coupled with the fact that it was shot in North Korea, makes this film sound like a propaganda epic about a fighter pilot. In fact, as British producer Nick Bonner and his Belgian counterpart Anja Daelemans explained to me when the film screened at Edinburgh Film Festival, it is a groundbreaking co-production with Belgium and the UK which, though drawing on the technicolor fantasies of the Fifites, marks a step into a fairytale unknown for North Korean cinemagoers raised on propaganda movies.

The film - which is showing at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival this week - follows the funny and romantic adventures of Comrade Kim Yong-mi (Han Jong Sim), a rural coal miner who dreams of becoming a trapeze artist.

How did the project come about?

Nick Bonner: We met in 2002 at the Pyongyang international Film Festival, which is quite a bizarre place to meet. The person who were in contact with, Ryom Mi Hwa, is our co-producer, who is our stalwart and the third girl between us three. For me, I'd been involved in taking Bend It Like Beckham to North Korea - in 2004. It came to the festival and in 2010 it was broadcast round the country - and I saw people react to that and it was exciting. Then Anja and I kept on saying we should do a short story. We kept in contact and we liked the idea of entertainment - that you pay your ticket price, you get entertained and you come out again.

In North Korea they'd never had an entertaining film. They've had elements of films that were romantic comedy, lots of war films, but they all have a very heavy undertone of politics and propaganda. We wanted to see if we could do something very different and very light. For me, I've love light-hearted films and I knew that it would work if we could make something like that. Ryom was interested in working with us - I've worked with her on a few documentaries. She's an amazing woman. For two years we wrote a story of what we thought would be possible. Then the problem hit - no film studio wanted it. It was never a political problem, it was that film studios didn't see it as a North Korean film.

Han Jong Sim and Pak Chung Guk in Comrade Kim Goes Flying.
Han Jong Sim and Pak Chung Guk in Comrade Kim Goes Flying.
Anja Daelemans: I went to film school and studied direction. Then I just got bumped into production, so for 15 years I did everything from making coffee to production management, what they call a show-runner now. I produced two short films that were nominated for an Oscar and with one of them, Gridlock, I ended up at a fantastic film festival in Seoul, South Korea, where I met a German journalist who told me there was a film festival in the other side. I'm quite curious to meet people and other cultures. So I went over there with three shorts films and I met Nick and Ryom Mi Hwa.

I want to be entertained. I worked as a producer with a few directors who just make movies to tell stories. I'm not interested in documentariees - if I want to get depressed then I'll watch the news. I just want to go into the movie and be entertained. I'm a James Bond fan, I like the Die Hard movies, so things that are just entertainment. No way that I believe that Bruce Willis can go and rescue the world on his own. Although I realise that some people believe that he can rescue the world...

It needs to be cheerful and fun.

It all started in 2006 with a short film. Ryom Mi Hwa is such an amazing woman, we just wanted to do something together. Nick took the idea of a short film to Ryom Mi Hwa and then the project got bigger and bigger and bigger.

NB: But all unofficially, just as mates, writing it.

AD: We were just like three friends. We were just writing a script in one of them happened to live in North Korea. She's a woman and when we were talking it was always about the girl power thing. Because in the movie business, no matter how many women there are already in, it's still a male environment. Most of the directors are men, most of the producers are men. In North Korea, it's the same, you try to find a woman director but there are none. So she's an amazing woman and we always had something like "girl power, we rule the world" - and it started from there. Three years later, we had written a script that had nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with drugs, war, with violence, no sex, just a pure, fun story. And that was the basis of what we wanted.

Nick: How it happened? The script was refused permission. Ryom went round every single studio. There's the military studio, there's a sort of public studio and a TV studio, but no one wanted it. So the project was stopped because first of all you have to find a studio. This sounds a bit like a little Hollywood story, but she left half the script down at the doorman's cabin - and in winter, it's as cold inside the buildings as it is outside, if not colder. It was like North Korean market research - the doorman grabbed her and said, people are reading this and they want to know what happens at the end. She spoke to one of the girls who said, it's not a North Korean film but I really like the story.

Comrade Kim shows her skills on the building site.  'We tried to overcome cultural differences - what humour would work for our audience, what humour would work for a western audience.'
Comrade Kim shows her skills on the building site. 'We tried to overcome cultural differences - what humour would work for our audience, what humour would work for a western audience.'
So Ryom got re-empowered and went to all the studios, who again said no. She then tackled this one man and said, "Look, I really want this to be done." In Korea, if you push... eventually. So, he introduced this chap, our director, who was from the military studio. His father was a director and had actually worked with Ryom's father, who was a cinematographer and because of that coincidence, there was a connection. He said, "Okay, we'll try it."

So the script got accepted and we then worked the script up. The whole working class thing - it's a class thing, it's not a 'we are the workers thing'. In North Korea, there's the workers party and people are intellectual, there's peasants and there's farmers. What the dad is saying is, 'We're coal miners, love, do us proud'. It's a take of the working class - we are the people, don't forget the city snobs.

Anja: There is just one level, you don't have to go to the movie to see different levels. What you see is what you get. There are no hidden messages. The only message is in the beginning of the movie and the end of the movie. That's the only message that's in there.

Nick: Girl power and live your dreams.

Anja: The way North Korean tell their stories, the way they make their movies, it's the way you see it. We did it all together, we wrote the script together, we tried to overcome cultural differences - what humour would work for our audience, what humour would work for a western audience. Because even between the UK and Belgium there are cultural differences in humour. We wanted to make a universal story but, in the first place, for the North Koreans.

Some people think that we Europeans made a movie in North Korea but that's not true - we made it all together. We didn't want to be directors in the first place, we ended up being directors because otherwise it was impossible to go to film festivals and impossible to make the story work. We did some test screenings in Europe because we were sure that the movie worked in North Korea but, for me, I didn't want to make a movie for a North Korean audience only, I wanted to make it for the rest of the world.

So that was why we did some test screenings and there is came up that things were not clear enough. Things that were obvious for the North Koreans but not obvious for us. The way they tell their stories in movies is with no establishing shots, because for them it's obvious. But for us, if you don't know the country, it could be anywhere. We need to see city views and the world outside. Fifty years ago, they stopped developing. If you want to discover the new North Korean Kim Ki-duk that's not possible.

How hard was it to cast the movie and how did you come to cast actual acrobats in the key roles.

Comrade Kim as a child. 'We had written a script that had nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with drugs, war, with violence, no sex, just a pure, fun story.'
Comrade Kim as a child. 'We had written a script that had nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with drugs, war, with violence, no sex, just a pure, fun story.'
NB: We had to make a decision. We looked at all sorts. We looked at trained actresses but Han Jong Sim worked out really well. She's from a village outside Pyong Yang, with about 14 houses. Her sister had tried to be an acrobat and failed. Because her mum was a dancer, she wanted to be an acrobat and she let her daughter go. She failed twice but then got in to acrobatic school.

There's a pool of actors who belong to not one studio, you can get them source them, but if they're big actors they won't go for 'second' roles - but they did with this. So ithat was very cool. They have a big choice, there's other films going on. So we ended up with Ry Yong Ho [the North Korean equivalent of] George Clooney and the other ones who are big names there. So much that when we were out on the street filming people would gather round and they looked after the two leads.

Was there any censorship or interference from the government in North Korea?

NB: There is some government intervention at times, for that film to be accepted to be shown round North Korea had to have the stamp. But the film process was made outside of it. Shot in North Korea and then taken out. For North Koreans to say, 'All right, you go off and make a film with this because we realise our limits', that's a heck of a lot of trust. That came from film people who, beforehand, made propaganda films. They love films, they don't have to do it. Yes, North Korea is a very nasty place, there's no denying that but they are filmmakers because they want to be, they're actors and actresses because they like that. It's not that you are told to act. They've had an industry since 1948. If you're a bad actor, you just don't get the part.

Some people doubtless say, given the human rights abuses in the country, why did you want to make an entertainment for North Korea, what do you say to that?

AD: Why not? Don't those people have the right to be entertained in cinemas?

NB: For me that was very important. I wanted people to go in and see a film with this very strong message of live your dream and girl power. A male North Korean director originally said to us, "It's about a girl for a start. She's too old. She goes to the circus. What would happen if we have a male lead and he's young and we follow him in the circus and he becomes a star?" That was at the script phase and we just thought, we're not making a documentary. So it's always been a fairytale. A North Korean audience have never seen anything quite like this before - they know this is a fairytale, their first one. We'll know in 15 or 20 years what people will get out of that film.

AD: The strength she has comes from her mother, not from the party. It's not a friend she has talking to her about the leader, it's a teacher, an official. So, for us, it was ok to leave it there. When I see American movies it's just the same - let's go patriotic! - and nobody says, "Oh, it's propaganda for America."

NB: It was important not to make it a Euro-mash. Their writers filled in the gaps, they wrote about her being a girl who won't take no for an answer, they wrote about the man getting his way with a bent coupon into the circus, using every trick in the book. They wrote that, it's not us writing that. Nobody's got the hindsight of having watched the last 30 years of North Korean films - if you had, you would go, 'Wow'.

Are you ever worried going in and out of the country?

NB: The only people who have ever been in trouble are tnhe people who have gone in illegally, or who have gone in with Christian propaganda and have been evangelising.

AD: If you have respect and you trust and communicate, that's ok. If you don't go in with bad intentions. There are no bad intentions in this movie - there is nothing I cannot defend. Every line, every cut, every single word can be defended and I know why it's in there.

Do you think you'll do more fiction there?

NB: I think they will. I think they've realised. They're bowled over by it. For them, it's an emotional film. We showed it in South Korea and they said, "It's a film without propaganda."

Comrade Kim Goes Flying screens on the 18, 22, 24 and 26 in the Vitamin Boost strand of Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. You can read more about the film on the official site.

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