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Asia

North Korean 'rom-com' plays in South Korea

Film lovers in South Korea have had the rare treat of a public screening from north of the border. Seoul waived its usual ban on such movies in the spirit of what it called "cultural exchange."

The film Comrade Kim Goes Flying is a romantic comedy, starring North Korean actress and acrobat Han Jong-sim, who plays the title character.

Comrade Kim is a young female coal miner who dreams of performing in the Pyongyang Circus and, after an embarrassing audition, wins over her love interest and gets a spot in the trapeze troupe.

It was entirely shot in North Korea and features a North Korean cast. However, two of the three directors of the film are European.

"It's not about a country, it's about one girl who decides to fulfil her dreams," said British producer Nicholas Bonner who, along with Belgian screenwriter Anja Daelemans and North Korean director Kim Gwangju-Hun, created Comrade Kim. "This is a film with universal values".

Han Jong-sim, who plays the title character, is winched into the sky (Photo: AP/dapd)

The filming was done entirely on location in North Korea

The screening is not the first time a North Korean movie has made it to the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF). In 2003, two North Korean entries were scheduled to play but, at the last moment, South Korean authorities stepped in and only non-Korean citizens were permitted to enter the theatres.

'Lacking the usual propaganda'

It is believed that the films contained what might be considered pro-North Korea ideology, which is forbidden under national security legislation.

But some observers say that Comrade Kim lacks the blatant political propaganda that most other North Korean films contain.

"It didn't have any big underlying message in it, aside than perseverance pays, don't give up your dreams, but that's a universal thing," said Johannes Schonherr, author of North Korean Cinema: A History. "They tried to stay away from the political."

Schonherr says the influence of the European directors most likely contributed to the possibility of showing the film in South Korea. Comrade Kim has also played in festivals in Toronto and Pyongyang. There is no word yet if the movie will be shown in South Korean theatres outside of BIFF.

Sharing popular cultures

Under the current administration of President Lee Myung-bak, the National Security Law has been strengthened and very few inter-Korean cultural exchanges have taken place. The South's Ministry of Unification did allow BIFF to invite some of the North Korean cast and crew of Comrade Kim to attend the screening. The offer was made at short notice and Pyongyang did not respond. But film festival organizers say a door for future cooperation might now be open.

A woman takes pictures of banners advertising the Busan International Film Festival at Busan Cinema Center in Busan, South Korea, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. Along with the now inevitable galaxy of stars promoting blockbusters from across Asia, this year's Busan International Film Festival will screen a North Korean film for the first time in almost a decade as well as six classic Afghan movies that were hidden in a wall to save them from the Taliban. (Photo: AP/dapd)

The North Korean cast and crew were invited to the festival, but it was at too short notice

"Not all pathways between the two Koreas are blocked and I hope that soon North Koreans will know more about South Korean films or popular culture," says Lee Sang-yong, Director of BIFF's World Programming. "Since we cannot have totally open communication with the North, cultural elements like film can act in place of this".

Lee adds that he does see a place for other North Korea-related films at the festival in years to come. That even includes films that do contain some pro-North messages.

"South Korean audiences are not naïve. We know the hardships in North Korea", he said.

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