GALO: You’ve described Comrade Kim Goes Flying as a “girl-power movie” and something that’s “pure entertainment.” But, in your words, it’s also “North Korea’s first film about a protagonist fulfilling their dreams as an individual.” So in that perspective, it’s quite significant to North Korean cinema and the wider culture generally.

NB: Yeah, it’s massive. You can tell the impact it’s had. It’s now screening around North Korea. It had one screening at Pyongyang International Film Festival when it started in September last year, in January it had a theatrical release in [Pyongyang] and now it’s going around the countryside. People are flocking and they’re seeing it twice — in North Korea, they’re reacting to it in a very positive way.

GALO: Do you think it demonstrates a loosening of North Korean politics at all or government control over its people because they allowed this film to be made?

NB: Initially, it wasn’t the government. You’re dealing with filmmakers there; they know film and a camera as well as anyone else who’s a professional filmmaker. The fact is that, of course, the films they’ve made before are propaganda, so this is a different story. They’ve never had anything quite like this. It was more the studios that said “no” (at first). We post-produced outside of North Korea — after the shoot, we took the film for the first edit to China. It was a film really out of their control once it had gone out of the country. So, somewhere along the line, the government had to say, “Yes, we will show this film and we’re prepared to show this film in North Korea.” But no, it doesn’t demonstrate anything other than this was six years of hard work, and in the end it has some of the North Koreans’ favorite actors in it and so they said, “Well, we’ll show it.” And when it was shown it was so popular, cinemas were flooded out in Pyongyang. I think it just got that buildup, and people started talking about it.

It’s a very new style and has the message of an individual girl going about her dreams; it’s a taboo-breaker. It’s not the most equal of societies at times. I’ve heard they’re starting to do more films in this style, and if they can, I think that’s great. But it’s too early to really know. We’ll see.

GALO: This film seems to almost exalt the North Korean working class. For example, at one point in the movie a man says to Yong Mi, “You have shown us the strong spirit of the working class” and Yong Mi’s father, toward the end of the movie, says to her, “We, the working class, never give up.” Do you feel that there was a certain level of propaganda written into the script, particularly to promote working-class strength?

NB: It depends on how you look at it. It’s not necessarily “we are the working class, we’re a socialist country better than any other country.” It does say, “We are the working class, the working class is good.” In North Korea, you have the working class, the intellectuals and the peasants. This is a working-class story. It’s a girl from an industrial background going to a posh city. The reason why she hates the nemesis, Pak Jang Phil, is because he’s an arrogant guy from the city. That’s more how it comes across to us.

GALO: The leads who played Kim Yong Mi (Han Jong Sim) and Pak Jang Phil (Pak Chung Guk) were acrobats from the Pyongyang Circus. Why did you decide to use acrobats instead of trained actors?

NB: A couple of the supporting actors in the trapeze group who were with Yong Mi are trained actors. But we just wanted someone who was in that body, and it comes across. We went to look at [the acrobats] and she popped out to us. We did the auditions and she was fun, the energy was there. We gave her three months of training beforehand. It was mainly that reason — we didn’t want to trick the audience.

GALO: How has the film played to some of the international film festivals that you’ve been to? Have audiences been receptive to it?

NB: If you lose your preconceptions and you’re happy to watch it as a film, it’s a really enjoyable, fun thing. When you look into it and think, “Bloody hell, can you imagine what that’s like for a North Korean audience?” That’s one of the advantages to us following the film around; it helps people to understand. Then again, there are some people who can’t see that and think it’s propaganda. But they’re very, very much in the minority. If you look at it and don’t have any background on it and just see happy people smiling all the time, then you think, “Well that’s propaganda.” But it’s pushing the limits so much — it’s bloody enormous. Most people come out saying its lovely.

GALO: You’ve made three documentaries studying various aspects of North Korea, and you co-founded your own travel company, Koryo Tours, based in Beijing.

NB: That was a way to get access to North Korea initially, going in and out of the place.

GALO: How often do you go into North Korea?

NB: Once a month, and I’ve been doing that for 20 years now.

GALO: How did you become interested in North Korea as a destination and subject of your films?

NB: I’m a landscape architect by training, and went to study Chinese architecture and how it influenced Japanese architecture. Korea was this connection point between Chinese and Japanese culture. When I went there, I didn’t know the first thing about North Korea. It’s a fascinating place — no one was going; Beijing at that time was pretty empty, but North Korea was 10-20 people a year — foreigners — going in. It was a very exciting time. I spent a lot of time going in and out, doing cultural projects.

GALO: Obviously, you’ve studied North Korea extensively over the last 20-odd years and know the country well. But while making the film, have you learned or discovered anything new about North Korea that you maybe hadn’t noticed or discerned before?

NB: What was new was filming; I’ve made documentaries, but I’ve never made a feature film. It’s like your first day on the job anywhere. It was a case of learning the North Korean film industry and earning their respect. The biggest two words were probably “trust” and “respect.” They had to trust and respect us, and us them. Everyone wanted to make a good film; there was no hidden agenda. It may be limited and it may not be what we have in the West, but for them it was remarkable to take those steps.

“Comrade Kim Goes Flying” will be screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 8th and 9th. For more information, please visit or

Trailer Courtesy of: Nick Lamb/© 2012 Another Dimension of An Idea / Koryo Group.

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Featured image: Han Jong Sim in a scene from “Comrade Kim Goes Flying” directed by Kim Gwang Hun (DPRK), Nicholas Bonner (UK), Anja Daelemans (Belgium). Photo Credit: © 2012 Another Dimension of An Idea / Koryo Group.