To the Western eye, Comrade Kim Goes Flying might not seem like much. About a 28-year-old North Korean coal miner from the countryside pursuing her childhood dream to become an acrobat, it’s a simple, unassuming film with a predictable storyline, borderline-ridiculous scenarios, and actors that seem incapable of speaking without mile-wide smiles. Billed as a romantic comedy, a Western audience would be hard-pressed to peg it as such — the protagonist (Kim Yong Mi) and her love-interest (Pak Jang Phil) don’t consummate their feelings for one another even with a kiss, which is nothing short of rom-com blasphemy.

Dismissing the film so quickly, though, would be unfair and, more importantly, unwise — it’s a one-sided review that ignores the realities of North Korean society and movie culture. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has long endured a poor reputation with the West, being viewed mainly as the reclusive neighbor of South Korea ruled with an iron fist and a notorious “cult of personality” revolving around the Kim family — and, as far as cinema is concerned, a land of state-run film and television studios that pump propaganda into every production hitting the screen. But as Nick Bonner, co-director of Comrade Kim Goes Flying, explained to GALO one recent afternoon via Skype, viewers can only truly discern the beauty of the film after abandoning their Western lens.

A North Korea expert and enthusiast and owner of Koryo Tours (a travel company specializing in trips to the Asian nation), Bonner could barely contain his excitement for Comrade Kim, his first feature-length project (he’s credited with three DPRK-focused documentaries, as well). A fiction film with an all-Korean cast and co-produced with Western partners, it’s the first of its kind. After making its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2012, the movie has traveled to several prestigious international film forums, among them the Rotterdam International Film Festival, the Miami International Film Festival (where it made its US Premiere) and, most recently, the New York Asian Film Festival at Lincoln Center. More important than the splash the release is making internationally, though, the jovial Englishman seems equally, if not more, excited about the domestic ramifications of the film — indeed, Comrade Kim’s acrobatic endeavors could portend a new, more liberal status quo for North Korean cinema.

Editorial note: Portions of the interview have been edited and shortened.

GALO: You said that the idea for the film came about one winter evening over a few glasses of whiskey with one of your co-directors, Anja Daelemans. Can you explain how you developed the story and what inspired you to make the film?

Nick Bonner: The three real protagonists are myself, my colleague Anja — she’s been Oscar-nominated for two short films so she’s a proper filmmaker, and I’m more of a specialist on North Korea — and then another woman I’ve made documentaries with in North Korea, Ryom Mi Hwa, who’s our co-producer.

From my point of view, I took the film Bend It Like Beckham in 2004 to North Korea for the Pyongyang International Film Festival, which is like the Cannes of the East. That happens every two years, and I saw an audience react to [the film]. In 2010, we managed to get that film broadcast throughout the whole of the country. So, I think, we all knew there was room for a film to be made. The thing with Comrade Kim Goes Flying is if you look at it as a Westerner without the understanding that this was made primarily for a North Korean audience, you can sort of say, “This is propaganda.” This was a film for North Koreans. We wanted to make something that was for them, that was a fairy tale; it was “girl power,” it was escapism if you like, something that really pushed the limits. So that was the intention.

The three of us, in 2006, came up with a basic short story. The problem is no North Korean studio wanted that story because it wasn’t a North Korean trope. It didn’t have enough propaganda…well, it didn’t have any propaganda — it didn’t have any people fighting for the system, for the leaders, etc. So the film was almost not going to be made.

GALO: But your fortunes changed.

NB: Ryom left the script out — I suppose it was the first bit of North Korean marketing research ever — for people to read in her building and the doorman said to her, “People like this story.” And so, then Ryom tried again.

In another bizarre coincidence, her father, who was a photographer, had worked with a director, and Ryom met the director’s son, who was also a director. And because we found him, we got the film. Then we got more screenwriters and the story thickened out, and from a short film it went to a feature film.

GALO: Can you describe the screenwriting process a little bit? I know it was quite lengthy, spanning a period of three years.

NB: The first year and a half was us trying to get a story — three amateur writers (myself, Anja and Ryom), then working with a screenwriter Ryom brought in to get a story we thought would work to develop it into a full-length feature, and to get something that wasn’t a Euro-mash. It was trying to get the balance right — we wanted it to be a North Korean film, but one that followed this girl’s private story and her individualism. That’s where you had the cultural differences. We’d bang our heads together sometimes because something funny to them wasn’t funny to us, for us sometimes there wasn’t enough emotional content, which is actually one of the reasons we added in the animation in post-production.

I speak Chinese and very bad Korean, Anja speaks English and Ryom speaks English, but the Koreans spoke Korean. So we’d have these signings where we’d go through “smileys” — “I agree with that” would be a smile, a smiley with a sort of blank face would be “I’m bloody unclear what you’re going on about, tell me more.” It was a way also to understand what they were really feeling. It was the most amazing, cooperative thing.

I know people say the film has 1,000-volt smiles, but there is more emotion there — a North Korean friend said to me that this film “is like having a window open to all the color and laughter and dreams flying in,” because the comparison is so different. We can’t really compare to what they’ve made. No one’s seen North Korean films. This is what’s been so amazing, getting these actors expressing themselves and also to have powerful lines. A steel man says in the movie, “You’re a girl who doesn’t take ‘no’ for answer.” Now to us, that’s not very powerful but to a Korean it’s like, “Whoa, man!”

(Interview continued on next page)