On Tuesday night I attended my first ever screening at the Festival of Festivals in Toronto. “Comrade Kim Goes Flying”, the first-ever joint production between North Korea and the west, had its second premiere (an oxymoron I am sure but that’s how it was advertised) in a packed theatre, fortunately. Since I am not a film buff and pay no attention to the annual Toronto film festival, I would have had no advance knowledge of this film’s existence had it not been for the film’s director and producer personally contacting me to invite me to a screening.
Nick Bonner, who heads up Koryo Tours, the company which ran the tour I took to North Korea one year ago to the day, contacted me via E-mail to let me know he was going to be in town to attend two premieres of “Comrade Kim Goes Flying”. I could not pass up the chance to see this movie and to welcome Nick on my home turf.
“Comrade Kim Goes Flying” tells the tale of a coal mining beauty who aspires to be a trapeze artist. There’s one major problem, however: miner Yong Mi is afraid of heights. When she is promoted to work on a special construction project in Pyongyang, she takes advantage of her time in the capital city to try out for the national circus, yet fails at all of her auditions. Through perseverance and by inspiration from the working class she excels and becomes a star performer of the Pyongyang Trapeze Troupe. The story is told in a blast of colour, as the screen burst out in radiant grassy green, gleaming white (there is indeed a lot of smiling in this picture) and flowery colours from the entire spectrum. It was a pristinely “clean” picture. The coal miners, for example, were all laundry-detergent-TV-commercial spotlessly clean–not a speck of black dust on their faces–so depicting coal mining reality was obviously not an objective of the directors. In fact, during the Q&A afterward, when asked by a member of the audience if the workers in the DPRK were really as happy as they seemed to be in the film, codirector and coproducer Anja Daelemans answered that she was not a documentary filmmaker. She made fiction films, not films about everyday life in the DPRK. The degree of miner cleanliness and happiness was not intended to reflect the current situation in North Korea. Her aim was to create a happy story that shared the universal themes of love and striving to realize your dreams.
The Q&A session was long, which for a film that ended at 11 p.m. was a great sign, showing audience interest in the project. The film festival staff weren’t hurrying us out of there. Nick himself said as he introduced the film that we could stay and chat as long as we wanted since we had the last screening of the day in that theatre. He promised me a “Comrade Kim Goes Flying” T-shirt and had one ready for me when we greeted each other. We were reminiscing about our whereabouts one year ago; both of us knew very well where the other one was because we were both in North Korea together.
As I took my seat the gentleman to my right immediately noticed my DPRK “See you in Pyongyang” T-shirt. I was shilling for the country as I bedecked myself in the height of North Korean fashion: DPRK T-shirt, North Korea World Cup bracelet, plus a Koryo Tours bag, covered both sides in surrealist realism imagery. He asked me about my shirt and I told him about my visit to the North last year. In the row in front of me were six twentyish Korean Canadians, who were talking amongst themselves in Korean. The young woman in front of me turned around and saw my shirt, and asked me about it. I told her I had bought it in Pyongyang. She said to me “I am from North Korea”. Her English was not good, and I had to ask her questions in English through her friends who translated for her. She was from Chongjin, a city that was devastated by the famine and had only opened itself to tourists for the first time–ever–last year. I told her I visited Chongjin, and described through her translator friends the places I had seen there. Everything I said elicited giggles. I suppose that she never would have dreamt that a Caucasian Canadian would have ever set foot in her hometown. Or perhaps she was laughing at my attempts at Korean. I do know some phrases and the idea of a non-Korean speaking to her in her native language must have seemed too weird.
Although she did say to me, entirely in English “I am from North Korea”, after the film as I was talking to her friends, they told me that she was a North Korean refugee, who had escaped through the People’s Republic of China. No doubt “I am from North Korea” was a phrase she probably had to learn if she found herself safe haven in any embassy or consulate office in her quest for freedom. Nick told me that publicity for the movie went out to the humanitarian organizations helping North Koreans in Canada. I had read about this very small community in Toronto, but up till then had never met anyone who had risked his or her life escaping the country.
After the Q&A Nick invited me out for a drink with Anja and three other locals who had produced TV shows on North Korea or who like me were past Toronto travellers who had used Koryo Tours. At this time Nick remarked that I looked like I had put on weight. He most certainly was correct; I had lost quite a lot of weight during my time in the DPRK. My usual high-protein diet had suffered and I lost about sixteen pounds. I could not give an accurate figure because I was too scared to step on a scale when I returned to Canada. Aside from “Comrade Kim Goes Flying” and all the work Nick and Anja put into it over six years, we talked about languages (Anja being Belgian she and I shared stories about living in bilingual countries), returning to the DPRK, the new regime under the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, and my DPRK photo shows.
If it hadn’t been for Nick’s E-mail I would have missed this movie and the opportunity to see him again. If there is any chance for you to see “Comrade Kim Goes Flying”, grab it.