CUEAFS members Hannah Albone and Natasha Harmer spoke to one of the directors of the North Korean comedy ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying’, Nicholas Bonner. The film was screened at the Udine Far East Film Festival on 26th April 2013.
Hannah Albone: What did you think of the response from the audience here at the festival?
Nicholas Bonner: I was swept away by it, it was amazing. It’s not often that you get 1,200 people who are really supportive. Film festivals are always going to be interesting as it’s an art-house film crowd, but they were so supportive. We had the two Korean leads with us; we had the lead actress and my co-producer.
Natasha Harmer: So a coalminer-come-acrobat is a very unusual combination, how did that come about?
NB: Over a glass of whiskey. The story is pretty simple – a coalminer wanting to fly. North Korea have a circus, the circus in Pyongyang is very popular, not like when I was a kid in England, it’s very popular, it’s very different, it’s a different era.
But it was a much more simplistic time, and it just suited North Korea. I knew, having been in North Korea for twenty years now, that within those parameters you could create this story. You can film in a mine, you can film in Pyongyang, and you can film in a circus and develop the characters along there.
HA: You’ve got people from the UK, Belgium and North Korea all involved in the cast, how did this collaboration come about?
NB: I’ve made three documentaries in North Korea with the North Korean co-producer. It’s just three friends; you’ve got to stop thinking of it as an idea of ‘wow’. North Korea is where I’ve been based for a long time; so Ryom was my mate, and Anja from Belgium was my mate, and it’s three people wanting to just come up with a story.
You develop the script first, and then you find a studio to take it, then a budget, and then you make the film and go to post. It’s not such an unusual process, just because it’s in a very unusual country, doesn’t make the process any more unusual.
NH: Stylistically the film is very bright and fun with animation, what made you choose this approach?
NB: To me it reminds me of films I watched as a kid, and North Korean films don’t tend to be that way. I wanted to make a film like that because for her (Han Jong-sim); it’s a challenge to make a film in a different environment.
For me it was to actually want to make a film for a North Korean audience, something that was fun and entertaining. I took ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ there in 2004, and I’d seen how popular that was, so this was a chance to do something like that but in a North Korean style. The colours there, the blues are really blue, the greens are really green, it’s to make it pop, to make it pop off the screen.
NH: Are there any particular Western films that inspired it?
NB: No, not really. Nor any North Korean films that actually inspired it. North Korean films are favour strong female leads, and they often have a strong male lead behind it. This one doesn’t, the girl is strong all the way throughout and the man tries to be but he can’t, and he eventually falls in love with her for her. What really inspired it was, and it sounds awful to say it, girl power, but that’s what it was about. We wanted to have a female role achieving against the odds.
HA: The film has a very positive message, would you like to inspire audience members to follow their dreams?
NB: It’s a universal story – you fulfil your dreams. I think for a North Korean audience there will be a time for this. In 5 or 10 years I’d like someone to come up to me and say ‘That film inspired me’. When we showed it in South Korea, it was never intended to do anything but entertain, but I had a South Korean girl come up to me and say ‘I want to be just like Kim Yong-mi’.
What she meant was that she liked the way the lead actress was spunky and used all her wiles, her beauty, her tricks, to achieve her dreams and remain true to her herself. It was a film that was made with universal values.
There’s no sex, no explosions – it’s a very simple sweet film, and that’s what both Anja and myself, and Ryom, wanted. I hope that when you saw it you were entertained. As a Western viewer of course you’re looking at it not just as a story of a girl, but in this context it becomes a kind of ‘wow’ because you’ve never seen it before. But still the story takes you through from start to finish.
Interview by Hannah Albone & Natasha Harmer
Photography by Daisy Ware-Jarrett