How much do you know about modern North Korea? I’m guessing that, unless you’ve just escaped from North Korea (and been pretty quick at learning to read English competently / use the internet / gain a love of obscure cinema to bring you to you to ScreenAnarchy in the first place) very, very little.
Seemingly, this lack of knowledge of North Korea serves them perfectly well – keeping us as in the dark as to what goes on in the country as it keeps it’s people as to what goes on outside. Of course, if you’re anything like me, that just makes you unbelievably hungry to find out what actually goes on there – and with the most recent insight for most of us being Stone and Parker’s so ronery Kim Jong Il, it makes it all the more remarkable that director Daniel Gordon and his team were given such complete access to North Korea to make this film – A State of Mind, and it’s no surprise that I jumped at the chance to see it on the big screen recently.
As the film itself states, in 2003, with the writing on the wall for North Korea as the next liberation target after Iraq, due increasing worry about it becoming an emerging nuclear power, it was a ripe time for some good publicity. And what better publicity than letting in a British film crew to cover the progress of two young gymnasts in preparation for the Mass Games – North Korea’s yearly gymnastic spectacle, performed in honour of the (quite deceased) eternal president, Kim Il Sung, and current general – Kim Jong Il, his son.
Described as the biggest and most elaborate human performance on earth, images of performances across the years are shown repeatedly on screen, and they are mind-blowing. Many of us will have seen images of the parades held in their honour, most usually portrayed as a vulgar display of military power by the western news media, with hordes of immaculate rank and file troops goose stepping in perfect time – jackboots stomping on human faces forever. The sight of their unparalleled timing in this face stomping, taken subjectively, is truly amazing. But even that pales into insignificance when compared to the Mass Games, in which thousands of school age children, from what looks like as young as 6 or 7 until the mid teens, dancing in the most amazing displays of perfect timing, grace, and colour. The final sequence of the film, the Mass Games that the girls have worked so hard to take part in, is so continuously amazing that I honestly thought I might pass out, or at least, have to close my eyes, lest they be seared shut by the brilliance.
The Mass Games are a truly beautiful, amazing thing. Were they seen by more than the paltry 4 million viewers in North Korea, they would be a worldwide phenomenon – and a truly seductive piece of propaganda.
And with that thought in mind, that this yearly display is nothing but a grand piece of propaganda, you can understand why the North Korean authorities were happy to allow Gordon’s team in, previous North Korean documentary ‘The Game of their Lives’ (about the 1966 win of the North Korean team against Italy) aside. However, all worries that this is nothing but a meaningless fluff piece can be cast aside. While it’s easy to be seduced by the visuals and talk about nothing but that, this is a strong piece of documentary film making, with a balanced look at the lives of Pak Hyon Sun and Kim Song Yun, the young gymnasts in question. Simply by showing their daily lives the insight seems amazing – the long hours they spend practicing. The family homes where, even in the country’s showcase city, Pyongyang, there are regular power cuts, only 5 hours of TV a day, and a government radio that you can’t turn off. The continual rationing, and endless, meaningless celebrations of the lives of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
And the daily hatred of America. It’s too easy to forget, these days, as the years pass, that the Korean war ever happened. But, for this small country, it’s something they’ll always remember, and due to the closed state, it’s unlikely they’ll ever forgive America for their intervention and subsequent bombing campaigns. Politics aside, with the amount of propaganda fed to them, and America’s continuing image problem, it’s not hard to see why.
That’s why films like this are important, and amazing. They give us insight into what, we, as westerners, are told every day to fear. To see people as humans that we're told to see as enemies.
When you watch a film like this, you see they’re just as flawed as us. Possibly no more warped by their government than average dyed in the wool republican.
And in the midst of this all, two little girls practice every day, all year long, to be the best gymnasts they can be out of only love. Love for their dear leader.