Comrade Kim Goes Flying (2012)

Who says North Koreans can’t have dreams and be fun?

The film is a European-DPRK co-production, directed by Kim Gwang Hun, Nicholas Bonner and Anja Daelemans and written by Sin Myong Sik and Kim Chol. The film is shot in the DPRK, mostly Pyongyang, and stars a North Korean cast.

Kim Yong Mi, the titular Comrade Kim, works at a coal mine. She’s an enthusiastic worker but her true passion is acrobatics, specifically the trapeze. She admires Ri Su Hyon, a famous performer at the prestigious Pyongyang Circus. When Yong Mi gets the opportunity to work in Pyongyang for a year, she not only gets to see the circus, she decides to try out at an open audition. She meets many set backs – including her unexpected fear of heights and some snobbery among the other trapeze artists – and ultimately fails the test. But she also finds great support from her fellow workers, and honestly has the best boss ever. She works hard, puts on a show at the Workers Festival for her construction unit and just as it seems she might get another chance at her dream, her year is up and she returns home. Will Yong Mi’s father let her go back to the big smoke? Will judgemental Pak Jang Phil realise she is the perfect replacement for Ri Su Hyon? You betcha, and the training montages come thick and fast. But will she ever master the legendary quadruple somersault?

It’s interesting to see how the DPRK Juche philosophy plays out in a standard Western style rom com. And it’s a surprisingly fun blend of socialist work ethic and follow your dreams movie magic. The challenges and obstacles that Yong Mi confronts are usually resolved through her persistence and hard work, with an emphasis on teamwork and sacrificing individual glory for a greater goal. Her clashes with the leading man start to settle once he respects the potential of a working class person. At a point when she feels like she should give in, colleagues and friends turn up to cheer her on, all feeling that her achievement will be their victory. Sure, some scenes lay it on a bit thick but overall the tone is cheerfully naive and earnest.

I holidayed in the DPRK a couple of months ago and despite the extremely different way of life and society there, found many of the people I met to be warm, often funny, and very much my cup of tea. So I think the film strikes a chord because I could relate to some things and others reminded me of places or things I saw on my trip. The colour palette and the slightly retro look of the city suits the story too. And the use of animated sequences in some transition scenes draws on the North Korean propaganda artistic style.

Yong Mi gets a second chance because of all the people helping her. She is cheeky and smart but what they respond to is her effort and determination, not just her smile and jokes. She might have her head in the clouds but her work teams hit their targets and she contributes to their achievements. She uses her wit and charm to overcome obstacles and I liked how people would find a way so everybody could win. Ha Jong Sim is likeable and invests Yong Mi with energy and warmth, I could see why people liked her. She is a model worker and when her boss Commander Sok Gun says they should put on an acrobatics display with her teaching the workers, she throws herself into the practices too. I absolutely love that her way of putting Pak Jang Phil back in his box is by challenging him to a cement mixing contest.


Commander Sok Gun (Ri Yong Ho) tells his brigade that putting on a show for the workers festival is about the team not the individuals, and that everything can be achieved with self-belief and revolutionary spirit. He goes out of his way to help Yong Mi achieve her dream because he is a lovely person but also because he doesn’t like the snide elitism of some of the circus performers. He will support the working classes and show how much potential they have. He’s a great boss for Yong Mi and his salt of the earth calm is a good foil for her more emotional character.

Pak Jang Phil (Pak Chung Guk) is Ri Su Hyon’s trapeze partner, going through a crisis when she retires. He is obviously living a fairly cushy life and believes his skills make him special. He resists helping Yong Mi at first but of course her grit and talent opens his eyes to considering her as a possible performer. And there are the stirrings of a romantic relationship. But I kept telling her she could do better than him. He is very much a pampered city boy who has to learn some respect for the people whose toil allows him to live so well. I think he could afford to put in a bit more effort before she decides he has learned his lesson.

The support cast are all good and represent all the essentials in a social drama – family elders, best friends, work mates, and various authorities. Kim Son Nam had that thankless role of film dad who doesn’t support his kid until right at the end, but his reservations were because he was worried for her. So he was a wet blanket, but a well-meaning one. I particularly liked gruff Kim Chol as the foundry foreman, Sin Gwang Son as the nerdy youngest steel worker and his cute fanboying over Yong Mi, and Kim Song Ran as Yong Mi’s bestie.

This is not a film that will rock your world, but it’s a competent and highly enjoyable movie about following a dream. I watched it in a week when I needed some good news, and this put a smile on my face. 3 ½  stars!


The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir

Ken Scott directed this joint English/French film based on Romain Puertolas’s best-selling novel with the even longer title: ‘The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe’. Dhanush stars as Ajatashatru Lavash Patel, aka Aja, a con-man from India who embarks on a fantastic adventure across Europe while trying to get back to Paris. The film is a feel-good fantasy that’s occasionally a little too sweet and simplistic, but the colourful locations and an engaging performance from Dhanush ensure that it’s entertaining throughout. The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir released in Melbourne as part of the Indian Film Festival after debuting in France earlier this year, and is slated for a summer release in Australia.

The film starts in India where young Aja (Hearty Singh) lives with his mother Siringh (Amrutha Sant) and drives her to distraction with constant questions about his missing father. Siringh works in the dhobi ghat and to supplement their meagre income, Aja cons tourists on the streets of Bombay. Along with his two cousins, he steals wallets and picks pockets by distracting tourist with his magic tricks. Perhaps Aja’s greatest revelation occurs when his school lessons teach him that he is in fact poor, something that had previously never occurred to him, and which totally changes his view of the world. Another critical moment comes when he picks up an Ikea catalogue in the doctor’s surgery and instantly finds the perfect ideal for his imagination. He pictures his neighbourhood just like a catalogue page and has memorised every collection despite the difficult Swedish names. Naturally then when he discovers that his father was actually a street performer from Paris, part of his wish list is to visit Ikea and finally see all the marvellous collections for real. His mother had always talked about going to Paris, so when she dies, Aja decides to finally make the trip.

Aja’s father had sent love letters to Siringh, and armed with these, his mother’s ashes and his new passport, he sets off for Paris to find his father, and to visit Ikea. By chance he meets Marie (Erin Moriarty), an America ex-pat living and working in Paris, and immediately falls in love. They arrange to meet the next evening at the Eiffel tower, but with no money, Aja elects to stay in the Ikea store overnight, and that’s where his troubles begin. He hides in a wardrobe which is subsequently shipped off to England with Aja inside. The wardrobe is part of a load in a lorry which also contains a group of illegal immigrants and reality starts to encroach on the fantasy as they describe some of their experiences and the sad fates of others who had started the journey with them.

Aja is picked up by English customs, who then send him to Spain, along with many other displaced persons they want to deport. They all end up stuck in the no-man’s land of the airport since the Spanish authorities also deny them entry. Ken Scott keeps up the whimsey with Aja but still manages to convey the despair and hopelessness of the refugees stuck in limbo while various governments argue their fate. It may be a rose-tinted version, but the rows of sleeping bags still speaks to a problem that is all too real and still current across many countries.

Aja manages to escape and travels to Italy where he meets film star Nelly (Bérénice Bejo) before falling foul of pirates and ending up in Libya. Here, he reunites with Somalian refugee Wiraj (Barkhad Abdi) before finally making his way back to Paris. His travels are all by the most unlikely methods – a suitcase, hot-air balloon and of course by wardrobe, which keeps a fantastical atmosphere to the story, while Aja’s ability to always land on his feet adds a fairy-tale quality to the tale. Dhanush keeps the child-like innocence portrayed so well by Hearty Singh, but adds some street smarts and an ability to engineer his way out of every difficulty. It’s his warm-hearted portrayal of a rather naïve con-man that makes the story magical and more than just a series of mishaps and contrived co-incidences.

There is plenty of comedy included in the adventures as Aja struggles to cope with officials, foreign customs and occasionally his own ineptitude while trying to make it back to Paris, and Marie. Dhanush is charming and perfectly cast as the well-meaning and kind-hearted magician who seems to strike bad luck at every turn. Until he improves his karma, of course. He fits into the role well, and as always puts his heart and soul into the performance, making us all want him to get back to Paris and win the girl, even though she’s rather drab and dull in comparison. Erin Moriarty is pleasant enough as the love of Aja’s life, but there is little life or sparkle in her character and it’s her friend Julie (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) who makes more of an impression, despite a dodgy storyline about her attempts to embrace an alternative life-style. Bérénice Bejo is much better as the Italian star and she even gets a dance routine with Dhanush, who burns up the dancefloor in his usual signature style.

Cinematographer Vincent Mathias splashes colour across the screen and makes Paris look magical, as we see it though Aja’s eyes. Italy gleams in the bright sunshine, and even Libya is colourful with all the migrants scattered across the sand dunes. There is a richness and vibrancy to every scene and the story is appealing with a good mix of comedy, adventures and magical fantasy. It is overly naïve at times, and there are rather too many chance meetings and lucky breaks for Aja, but if you want an amusing and non-taxing adventure with a feel-good storyline and charming lead, you won’t go far wrong with The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir.

Branded to Kill (1967)

Made on a low budget and in no time at all, Branded to Kill (Koroshi No Rakuin) is a delirious and highly stylised gangland film about a killer who has a seriously bad trot at work. I was lucky enough to see this at one of the free screenings of classics at the Japanese Film Festival in Melbourne. And in a world going mad, why not add a bit more madness!

Funny, vicious, and daft by turns, Suzuki Seijun’s make it up as you go direction, the input of eight co-writers who all seem to have Ideas (the Hachiro Guryu), and Kimura Takeo’s strong visual sense make this a gripping and yet incredibly silly B movie. Some scenes were instantly recognisable due to homages in more recent films, and a little bit of creative license with the Bond franchise.

The film jolts along in a series of episodes to tell the story of Hanada (Shishido Joe), the Number 3 hitman. He would like to be Number 1, and is generally quite efficient and creative. But one day he is distracted by a butterfly landing on the barrel of his gun, and accidentally shoots an innocent bystander. He goes on the run, sometimes aided by death obsessed Misako and sometimes hindered by his wife Mami (Ogawa Mariko). Eventually Number 3 kills many other numbers, Number 1 is sent to kill Number 3. Number 1 must not take a lot of contracts. He likes to spend a lot of time on destroying his target’s spirit before he kills them so he moves in with Hanada. A ridiculous and suspenseful game of cat and mouse ensues.

The characters live in funky modern apartments and dress in conservative but very 60s fashion. Except Mami who is usually naked. I actually didn’t recognise her at first when I saw her with clothes on. They drive cars with fins and hang out at nightclubs. Misako (Mari Annu) is obsessed with death and fills her apartment with dead creatures, especially butterflies and birds. Hanada’s methods are effective and surprisingly entertaining. There’s a cool trick with shooting up a drainpipe and some nice work making his escape on top of a miniature hot air balloon. When Hanada has a breakdown the screen dissolves into stylised animated graphics showing his confusion and panic. And the music is jazzy and sometimes incongruously chipper. It’s a decidedly modern film, with the endless ranking of hitmen and underworld niceties one of the few nods to tradition that manifests.

Hanada is not a good man, or a particularly likeable one, but I found myself cheering him on at times. Shishido manages to be lugubrious and comedic at once, largely due to his chubby chipmunk face. He is obsessed with sex and the smell of boiled rice is his aphrodisiac of choice. Hanada and Mami seem to share a penchant for uncomfortable sex in precarious locations, and that is about it. She hooks up with his boss Yabuhara (Tamagawa Isao), and eventually tries to kill Hanada. She was probably cold and tired of shagging while dangling off the top of the staircase. And some of his habits were gross. That crop top may be one of his worst decisions among so many other really bad decisions. Hanada knows someone will come to kill him, but he isn’t Number 3 for nothing and he managed a spirited defence. Even in the midst of all the impending doom there are moments of bright joyfulness as when Hanada starts playfully chasing a balloon, and a few “ew!” moments like Number 1 going Number 1 because they hadn’t yet worked out a toilet protocol, or Misako basically being flame grilled. It’s quite a rollercoaster.

Misako is the opposite of Mami in many ways. She is passively waiting for death, and wants Hanada to kill her. She sleeps with him to seal the deal but he then decides he loves her so he won’t kill her even though she only submitted in order to get him to kill her. I tell you these people have issues. Misako’s apartment is littered with dead butterflies and birds, in a kind of goth twist on crazy cat lady syndrome. Mari Annu is deadpan and her eyeliner game is strong. She drifts through scenes as though she already knows how everything will end and doesn’t care. Ogawa Mariko is passionate, fiery, and always wanting more. They are so completely opposite that neither character seems at all real.

In a film made from improbable and inadvisable actions, I still have some questions. I can accept that perhaps a belt buckle may stop a bullet. I could just about accept that a ladies hairband might perhaps deflect a bullet. But I cannot accept that firing a gun from inside a car will not break the windscreen but still kill a man on the outside. And, if you were hiding from a hitman, would you drive a convertible with the top down? Was Hanada dangling upside down from the ceiling trying to shoot a sniper? Some things really deserve to be explained. But you’ll need to see it to believe it when it comes to the ending.

The film is bordering on insane and I can easily believe nobody knew what they were about to shoot. It’s such a mess but it is oh so assured, stylish, and bleakly funny. 3 ½ stars!