Coal miner Kim Yong Mi lives with her father and grandmother in a small village in the North Korean countryside. Kim dreams of becoming an acrobat but is discouraged by her father and instructed to focus instead on her mining career. But when Kim travels to Pyongyang to work for a year, she visits the local circus, giving her the chance to audition...

Political thread guides trapeze dreams.

PYONGYANG INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: For those whose knowledge of the Korean peninsula is confined to the southern end, Comrade Kim Goes Flying is a unique opportunity to peek through the window to another, contrasting world. If you don’t know one end of Korea from the other: hang on to your hat! Promoted as a North Korean/United Kingdom co-production, the film is co-directed by Beijing-based Brit Nick Bonner along with Anja Daelemans and actual North Korean Kim Gwang Hun. It’s a seamless and genuine team effort.

it’s hard not to overly focus on the film’s North Korean propaganda elements

The story centres on Young Mi (Han Jong Sim), a gymnastically talented young woman from a coal-mining town who has ambitions to become a celebrated acrobat. Young Mi’s stern father regards his daughter’s dreams as a distraction from the coal mining work at hand. Undeterred, pure of heart, but unafraid to tell a calculated fib or two, Young Mi runs off to North Korean capital Pyongyang to brazenly push her way into an audition for a government acrobatic troupe.

Handsome Chung Guk (Pak Jang Pil) is the troupe’s reigning trapeze king. He’s anxious about his female trapeze partner’s impending retirement and his mother is nagging him to find a wife. It’s clear that Young Mi is a perfect candidate for both vacancies. Unfortunately, the acrobatic novice gets a vertigo attack mid-audition, and Chung Guk derisively laughs at the provincial coal girl’s failure. Fulfilling the credo of Bringing Up Baby (1940) – 'the love impulse often reveals itself in terms of conflict" – Young-mi goes off with a pout on her lips and fire in her belly. Working on a Pyongyang construction site, our heroine uses the building site facilities (scaffolding, etc.) to build up her strength for a second attempt at acrobatic glory.

As endearing as this romantic comedy is, it’s hard not to overly focus on the film’s North Korean propaganda elements. The nature of propaganda is that we can’t see our own because we’re constantly immersed in it. An illustration of this idea is reflected in Wim Wenders’ much quoted remark about Hollywood: 'they have colonised our minds".
True, but that minimises American film’s great achievement of successfully melding propaganda and entertainment. Just because Casablanca (1941) or the pro-Nazi film Triumph of the Will (1935) are propaganda, doesn’t mean they aren’t superb films.

Comrade Kim is neither as great as Casablanca or (though I admire it) as dangerous as Triumph of the Will. If you can put your prejudices aside though, Comrade Kim is great fun. North Korean cinema operates under rigorous constraints that make the parameters of Iranian and Chinese cinema look like a free-for-all. Despite toeing the party line, Comrade Kim cheerfully communicates its working class ethos without lecturing.

On its own terms, the film’s major flaw is that lead actress Han Jong Sim is an acrobat who can act a little, rather than an actress pretending to be an acrobat. However, use of a body double for the acrobatic scenes would have robbed the film of its visual authenticity. Besides, actress or not, Han has the cheekiest smile"¦ you can’t help but fall in love with her and wish her success.