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!

 

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The Thieves (2012)

The-Thieves-Poster

Boasting a large ensemble of established and popular stars, and making use of locations in South Korea, Hong Kong and Macau, Choi Dong Hoon’s The Thieves is often spectacular. The plot is packed with incidents and conflicts, twists and turns, rarely lagging before hitting the next mark.  I was glad to see this as part of the 2013 Korean Film Festival as the action is best appreciated on a big screen. (Sidenote: Melbourne is fortunate to have so many excellent film festivals and I like to get along to support them. The Korean festival is brilliant – a small but interesting program and very well organised, with lots of extra events around the films)

Things start to heat up when Macao Park (Kim Yoon Seok) assembles a team of ten thieves to steal a legendary diamond. The Korean thieves know each other, as do the Chinese members, but they’ve never worked together. There is open conflict, and hidden resentments and betrayals. Once the pressure is on, who will stick to the plan and who will look out for themselves? Maybe they don’t know each other as well as they think.

The-Thieves-Team ChinaThe-Thieves-Miracles

The Korean team consists of the leader Popie (pronounced Popeye) (Lee Jung Jae), cat burglar and wire expert Yennicall (Jeon Ji Hyun aka Gianna Jun), technical assistant and token cute boy Zampano (Kim Soo Hyun) and middle aged con artist Chewing Gum (Kim Hae Sook). They are joined by safecracker Pepsee (Kim Hye Soo), just released from jail after a gold heist gone wrong. Her partners in that gig were Macao Park and Popie. In China, Macao Park recruits veteran Chen (Simon Yam) and his sidekicks Jonny (Derek Tsang) and Andrew (Oh Dal Soo) plus another safecracker, Julie (Angelica Lee). The game is afoot!

The characters are clearly defined in terms of type (competent, eye candy, comedy fodder etc.) from the start but the personalities and history emerge throughout the course of the action. Personal and professional rivalries bubble to the surface, and almost everyone has their own agenda.  Often in this kind of film the nuances of characterisation are missing or overshadowed by the action. I was pleasantly surprised by the female characters, most of whom were more developed and complex than the guys. There is some romance between thieves, but not always what you might expect, and it doesn’t seem to distract the ladies from the task at hand.

The-Thieves-Yennicall at workThe-Thieves-Pepsee and Yenni

Jeon Ji Hyun is lots of fun as Yenni. One minute she is trading on her beauty, the next she could be doing a dorky victory dance or coolly rappelling down a skyscraper. Yennicall is often the butt of jokes but she is not as dumb as some might like to think. She just concentrates on what works for her. And Yenni is not just the token hot chick, she is a skilled thief with fairly good instincts even if she does seem a bit dim. Zampano has a crush on her and they have an oddly sweet relationship. She knows he is into her, she is out for herself, but they are friends and colleagues. Her rapport with Chewing Gum and her vague jealousy of Pepsee are well played. It’s a nice performance as Jeon Ji Hyun doesn’t mind playing against her glamour girl image and has good comic timing.

Pepsee and Julie are extremely competent and each has a strong back story that informs their present choices.  Kim Hye Soo gives Pepsee a tough façade over a wounded heart. Angelica Lee is all business and Julie’s sharp eyes rarely miss a trick. They are very different from each other on some levels, and I appreciated seeing diverse strong women in the story. Their rivalry is on a professional level, it has nothing to do with any of the men in the team. They can respect each other but that won’t get in the way of what needs to be done.

The-Thieves-PopieThe-Thieves-questions

Lee Jung Jae plays Popie with almost teenage angst. He wants to be taken seriously, to be the leader, he wants Pepsee to forget Macao Park and why doesn’t she love him instead. It’s a well-judged performance as while some of Popie’s actions and dialogue are incredibly silly, he plays a major part in what happens so needs to be credible. And I appreciated the stick on moustache which no one ever believed was real.

The-Thieves-the handoverThe-Thieves-Macao Park

It’s a long wait to find out what drives Macao Park and exactly how his relationship with Pepsee went sour. The character is a brilliant strategist and thief, and he stays cool in the most trying of situations. That makes him less relatable and human and consequently I was a bit less invested in his situation than I was in the other team members. Kim Yoon Seok does well in the scenes where he can show some of the complexity and emotion under that calm surface, and he underplays most scenes to great effect.  He also gets the best and most explosive action sequence of the film culminating in a vertiginous fight on cables down the side of an apartment building.

The-Thieves-Aerial 1The-Thieves-Aerial 2

In between marvelling at the camera and wire work I was a bit distracted by the ease with which so many airconditioning units were dislodged. Maybe they don’t get really big pigeons in Busan.

The-Thieves-after the robberyThe-Thieves-Zampano and Yenni

Kim Soo Hyun is underutilised as Zampano, the guy on the other end of Yenni’s wire rig. He gets little to do, but makes the best of his limited role and some of his scenes with Yenni are charming. And of all the guys in the cast, the only one you’d really want to see shirtless is him, so that worked out well.

The-Thieves-Chewing Gum and Chen

Simon Yam and Kim Hae Sook stole the limelight when they were sharing their little corner of the subplot. I always like seeing secondary characters with a sense of purpose or dreams of their own, and Chen and Chewing Gum gave the story some welcome uncomplicated affection.

Apart from the main ensemble, there is a sizeable supporting cast. Ki Gook Seo and Ju Jin Mo stand out as the dangerous fence Wei Fong and the dogged policeman on the trail of…well, everyone.  All of the threads lead back to a couple of key factors so as things unfold, some of the peripheral characters move in or out of focus.

Choi Yeong Hwan makes great use of contrasts to set the mood with striking visuals and composition. The shady rooms and derelict factories where thieves do business are tucked away beneath the high gloss of Macau, with casinos doing the work of thieves in parting people from their money. You can almost taste the greed and aspiration. The action scenes are beautifully composed and edited, sometimes giving an aerial view of the moving parts ofa clever scheme and other times plunging into the action and confusion. In some scenes the film speed slows and speeds up to synch with the dramatic ebb and flow. Jang Yeong Gyoo’s soundtrack is perfect for this genre. Bouncy and brassy, sometimes even a bit funky, the music matches the pace and adrenalin of the action and visuals. It’s another very accomplished and confident effort from the team that made ‘Tazza: The High Rollers’.

The Thieves has so much going on that I am impressed the sense of urgency  and consequence was maintained even when the revelations were all out in the open. The blend of action, humour and drama is deft and the characters are well drawn. I enjoyed it immensely. 4 stars!