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May 30, 2017

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Romantic comedy gets twist from N. Korean acrobats

SEOUL, South Korea -- It's a classic tale of a small-town girl who follows her dreams to the big city. But in this case, the girl is a North Korean coal miner, the big city is Pyongyang and her dream is to become a high-flying trapeze artist.

"Comrade Kim Goes Flying," a collaboration between a North Korean director and two European filmmakers, makes its world premiere Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival before it heads to Pyongyang later this month for its North Korean debut.

The film was shot on location with an all-Korean cast, but it avoids overtly political themes and isn't what foreign audiences might expect to see from North Korea: a feel-good romantic comedy about a plucky young woman who grabs her chance to run off to the circus, only to find her wings clipped by the show's handsome but arrogant superstar. He seems determined to make sure she doesn't succeed — until he falls in love with her.

British co-director Nicholas Bonner called the story an "unexpected fairytale."

"It's one purely about a girl going about her dream" Bonner told The Associated Press in an interview in Pyongyang. "She's an individual and rather cheeky character with this dream of hers to fly."

Bonner has been traveling to Pyongyang for nearly 20 years as co-founder of Beijing-based Koryo Group, which organizes tour groups, art shows and sports exchanges with North Korea. Belgian producer Anja Daelemans, a two-time Oscar nominee, got a peek when she showed a short film at the Pyongyang International Film Festival in 2002. The duo teamed up with Ryom Mi Hwa, a North Korean producer who has worked closely with Koryo Group over the years.

Citing the Korean phrase "Over the mountains are mountains," Bonner and Daelemans describe the making of the movie as a "long and halting process of ups and downs."

The idea for "Comrade Kim" was dreamed up one winter's night more than six years ago over glasses of whiskey. They tinkered with the script for three years before a North Korean studio was willing to take it on. Finally, Kim Gwang Hun, a director who once collaborated with Ryom's cinematographer father, took interest.

"Actually, I was concerned that the process of approving the script together with our foreign partner would take a lot of time and we would face many difficulties because of the difference in languages, customs and living environments," Kim said.

Indeed, the film's cast and crew have had little interaction with the outside world. North Korea, one of the world's last Cold War outposts, remains mostly isolated from the rest of the world, a country more famous for its nuclear defiance than its potential for romantic comedies.

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