Student Critics' Best of EIFF 2013

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This year, the Student Critics Jury at Edinburgh International Film Festival made their picks of the Fest.

In the spirit of the season, we're publishing their reviews of what they judged to be the best films of the year at the 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival.

First up, we have Ruth Swift-Wood's review of Comrade Kim goes Flying.

Offering you North Korea in Technicolor, Comrade Kim Goes Flying is a story of fantasy, self-confidence and chasing dreams. Following the trials and triumphs of young miner Yong-Mi, the film chronicles her early childhood wish to take flight and her determination to master the art of the trapeze, finding her wings in the Pyongyang circus. It is no great secret, from the moment the film opens, that she will succeed. Her aggressively open and charming smile tells us so. Yet it is the social fantasy woven around her triumph - the solidarity and love of the workers, the generosity of parents, the challenges of rivals and the coming together of countryside and city - that creates a narrative of joyful determination, saturating you from the moment the titles open.

This is not the North Korea of Western TV screens. The dominant force of the military leadership is absent, there is no starvation (in fact food is dramatically plentiful) and the tensions with the rest of the world are never addressed. Yet neither is this the restrictive pro-party film a North Korean audience might expect. It is not steeped in military triumph, there are no references to the rise of grand historical figures or the propaganda of party success, all common drivers for this isolated film industry. This film instead straddles the interests of both audiences whilst aiming to offend neither.

Importantly, it is not a film free of propaganda (despite assurances to the contrary from the directors); it is overwhelmingly buoyant in its attitude to worker solidarity and the joys of production. The filmmakers bring life to the static pro-worker poster images of 1950s communism. Yong-Mi is caught and frozen in a smiling shot for a magazine, her cheeks smudged with coal dust, her neck decorated in flowers - an image that returns throughout the film. This method offers North Korean audiences an escapist fantasy still framed in tropes familiar to them. As an audience member lacking this familiarity, I found the brash imagery shallow but not off-putting.

In style, the film is reminiscent of Hong Kong kung fu and romance films of the 70s, with garish colour schemes and buoyant yet dated music and sound effects. Training and performance montages marvel at physical prowess and at the showy attitude of our heroine, with the use of long ribbons and banners to add constant colour and movement to her actions. Scenes are short and fast, each one containing a moment of energy, a moment of humour and a nod from the characters to carry the plot forward. We’re left bedazzled and amused, never left to think too long before the next grand performance.

Intermingled with the live-action scenes are delicate moments of animation by animation-director Anne-Marie Walsh. These short, simple overlays of circling grass, open wings or up-turned faces move the audience comfortably through jumps in time and space. The designs take their influence from North Korean art-styles of past and present, again a familiar framing device for a local audience. For me, they underline the simple, childish fantasy of the story and connect well with the heavy saturation of the film’s colour palette.

The interplay between Yong-Mi and her love interest, the haughty and determined trapeze artist Jang-Phil, channels the sparky rivalry of Bollywood stars Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol in ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’. They exchange insults and put-downs and converse mostly through the medium of gymnastics, even after their antagonism has – predictably – broken. Yet unlike their Bollywood counterparts, Yong-Mi and Jang-Phil never really share love onscreen and I felt that lack. For all the nods towards it by surrounding characters, and despite publicity material describing Comrade Kim as a romantic comedy, this is a film about overcoming physical challenges - the romance is a mere wave from the background. Complete absence of romance would have been refreshing, a freeing experience for a female protagonist, yet I saw instead a pressing romantic subplot that frustratingly failed to flower.

The film is decorated by a cast of interesting background characters, those of special note being the charmingly helpful Commander Sok Gun, who bears the brunt of Yong-Mi’s early attempts to join the circus with a contagious sense of humour, and the impish figure of Yong-Mi’s grandmother who takes the subtle route to female independence, clearing familial obstacles from Yong-Mi’s path with a pinch of a leg and the wink of an eye. It is this cast of characters surrounding Yong-Mi that allowed me to engage with a heroine who would otherwise appear infantile and frighteningly over-bearing, plagued by her perpetual smile and over-stated reactions. It is through character-interaction that you witness the communal joy Yong-Mi is championing and sympathy blossoms.

It is unsurprising that the weaknesses of the film can be found in the characters of Yong-Mi and Jang-Phil. Trapeze artists, not actors, play both and at times this shows. They are showmen, their reactions built for stage with smiles that carry to the back of an auditorium. I found myself longing for a moment of restraint. Yet I forgive their exuberance, for the film would be lacking if not for the physical prowess these performers bring to the screen. The fact that both can move smoothly from speech to gymnastics to laughter embodies the fantasy of the film, as the audience watches them dance through the plot and up to their breathtaking finale in the heights of the Pyongyang circus.


Ruth Swift-Wood


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The Student Critics Jury is a group of bright young student film critics mentored at Edinburgh International Film Festival.


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