When the Belgian filmmaker Anja Daelemans and the British-born documentarian Nicholas Bonner resolved six years ago to collaborate, they decided to add an unusual challenge: make a movie in and about North Korea.
It was, the filmmakers agreed, a wild idea. "A bottle of whiskey was involved," said Bonner, only half-joking.
After all, no Western-financed movie had ever been produced inside North Korea. And no film shot inside the country had ever been edited outside it, as the pair wanted to do. North Korea's repressive government — which had occasionally collaborated with China and the former Soviet Union on films, and once co-produced a movie with South Korea — had always refused to work with any entity from a Western European or English-speaking country.
But the Beijing-based Bonner, 51, had earned the trust of the government by producing the BBC documentary "The Game of Their Lives," a largely positive depiction of North Korea's success in the 1966 World Cup. (Daelemans, 46, had directed two Oscar-nominated shorts that were not related to North Korea.) Through a North Korean producer, the two filmmakers met and teamed up with local director Kim Gwang Hun, who had made a number of propagandistic military films commissioned by the North Korean government. They also worked with several local screenwriters (who were, like all writers, paid and closely watched by the state).
After a number of go-rounds on the script with state-controlled film studios — government bureaucrats are intimately involved with nearly every level of North Korean film production — the trio finally won approval to make a feature. Daelemans' and Bonner's production companies and the state-run Korean Film Export & Import Corp. began the casting process, and last year they commenced shooting in Pyongyang and in the North Korean countryside.
"We almost couldn't believe that we had accomplished it," Daelemans said.
What they had accomplished was "Comrade Kim Goes Flying," about a young woman from a small coal-mining town who is sent to Pyongyang to work at a construction site, where she becomes a valued laborer and also pursues her dream of becoming a circus trapeze artist. (The title character is played by the real-life aerialist Han Jong-sim.) Shot with a brightly colored palette that casts Pyongyang in a highly desirable light, the film features many scenes that fetishize workers and manual labor.
"Comrade Kim" is unlikely to catch the eye of Oscar voters. With its simplistic, up-by-your-bootstraps story line and portrayal of a smiling North Korean populace that practically sings in the streets, the film received tepid reviews when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. "[I]t is hard to take seriously at face value," wrote a reviewer for the film trade Screen Daily.
Audiences sometimes rolled their eyes too, laughing at a few moments that were not intended to be comic. At a post-screening question-and-answer session, one person wryly asked, "Is every worker really that happy in North Korea?"
But no matter its aesthetic shortcomings, "Comrade Kim" demonstrates a notable loosening of restrictions, however small, on the part of a country where even international phone calls are prohibited.
"It's unprecedented, really," said Charles Armstrong, a professor of Korean studies at Columbia University, who has followed North Korea's cinema culture closely. "Whatever 'Comrade Kim' has to say artistically, the very fact of its production is remarkable. It shows a country more open in this way than it has ever been in the past."
The movie has also achieved a rare distinction, playing the state-run Pyongyang Film Festival last month while also being accepted to play this month at the Busan International Film Festival, hosted by North Korea's traditional enemy South Korea.
Despite the state's tight control over media, North Korea has a rich film history. Dozens of films were produced under the reign of Kim Jong Il, who so fancied cinema he once had a South Korean director kidnapped to make movies for him. The country's propaganda-filled movies have achieved a regional cachet, thanks to their tear-jerking sensibility. Chinese audiences have often valued them over their own propaganda offerings. (Foreigners are not allowed into North Korean cinemas to watch them, however.)
"Comrade Kim" may be more subversive than a casual viewer might notice.
Most films produced under the state-run film system emphasize the collective good. Stories of individual identity and self-actualization, so common in the West, are completely alien to North Korean cinema. In fact, some of the most historically popular North Korean films, like 1987's "A Broad Bellflower " actively take the opposite tack, championing those who put the collective good over their own will.
Yet "Comrade Kim" unabashedly shows a woman pursuing her dreams even as her family and members of her hometown disapprove. "This was a girl-power story, and that is not a story common in North Korea," Bonner said, understatedly.
Armstrong added, "It's unusual and even subversive. North Korean movies almost never show a person individually pursuing their own dream at the expense of the collective."
"Comrade Kim" has no distribution in the U.S. or many other Western countries, and though the actors are attractive and charming on screen, promotion is distinctly hard for a nation where, well, publicity isn't exactly a priority. Asked for an interview with "Comrade Kim's" director, Daelemans said that he would not be available.
"Talking to Kim Gwang Hun," she explained, "is a bit difficult."