Postcard from Andrew Salmon in Busan
Threats are more common from North Korea than laughs, but the European co-producers of Pyongyang-based romantic comedy Comrade Kim Goes Flying hope their film will put a more cheerful face on the hard-line state.
Comrade Kim had its world premiere at last month's Toronto Film Festival, then played at the Pyongyang Film Festival. Its South Korean premiere was on October 10 at the Busan International Film Festival, where South Korea's National Security Law banning any material deemed to be pro-North Korea does not apply.
The film, which cost about €1 million (HK$10 million) to make, is a three-way directorial collaboration between North Korean filmmaker Kim Gwang-hun, Oscar-nominated Belgian auteur Anja Daelemans, and British entrepreneur Nick Bonner, whose Beijing-based firm Koryo Tours has been taking international tourists into North Korea since 1993.
It follows the adventures of a pretty female coal miner (played by acrobat-turned-actress Han Jong-sim) who dreams of becoming a trapeze artist in Pyongyang. The obstacle is a male acrobat (played by Pak Chung-guk) who refuses to believe "Comrade Kim" can do the job - until he falls for her.
"We are putting out a universal story with universal values, something that could be written and seen and understood by people outside North Korea," says Bonner, who also co-produced the film with Daelemans and North Korea's Ryom Mi-hwa.
"There is no politics, no violence, no blood, no sex and no war," says Daelemans. "It is pure entertainment, a fairy tale you can watch with the whole family."
Comrade Kim is firmly set in the North Korean milieu. Society is portrayed as downright chummy: all the heroine needs to do is flash her serene smile and workers in mines, factories and performance troupes fall over themselves to assist her.
"When we wrote the script it was never our intention to put propaganda in, but to make a movie for North Korean people. That is why we had to make those lines," Daelemans says.
The film's coy approach to romance synchs with South Korea's sugar-sweet soap operas, making it familiar to local viewers in Busan. "Some of the humour is similar: light-hearted, silly, teen romance, it's identifiable," says audience member Hwang Yun-mi, a 32-year-old teacher of English and film studies. "It was not alien to me."