A State of Mind REVIEW

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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.

A State of Mind is available for UK readers at the VeryMuchSo online store, and is available to preorder for North American readers at the Kino Film online store (Release Date: 7th Febuary).

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opusJanuary 18, 2006 1:09 AM

Thanks for reminding me about this film. I'd read about it awhile ago, and it intrigued me, but I'd forgotten all about it. I just added it to my Netflix queue.

jon paisJanuary 18, 2006 1:19 AM

This all sounds to me a bit like the propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl created to glorify Adolf Hitler. Reifenstahl, herself an accomplished athlete, also made a documentary glorifying the accomplishments of a dictatorial regime which everyone today knows as "Triumph of the Will". The film portrays a strong, beautiful, defiant Germany. Reifenstahl's piece on the '36 Olympics, "Olympia" is another work which aims to present a picture of racial superiority to the world.

What precisely does the title of the North Korean documentary "A State of Mind" suggest? Without having seen the film, it seems to be calling into question Westerners' perceptions of the communist regime. Why have the filmmakers even been allowed access to the tightly-controlled State, when so many others, including politicians and artists are not? Why have all the Non Governmental Organizations and other human-rights activists been run out of the country?

The answer is quite simple really: because the filmmakers are willing to play into the hands of the regime, just as Reifenstahl was willing and eager to do 70 years ago. Does history, or at least film history teach us nothing? The dictatorship hopes to sway naive viewers without much knowledge of the historical events, social upheavals and ideological forces at play.

I haven't seen the DVD yet, but I believe that the documentary "Seoul Train" which exposes the reality of North Koreans trying to flee their homeland into China in order to escape starvation under a harsh repressive dictatorship, would be a better place to start. Readers who are interested should go to: http://www.Seoultrain.com.

I don't want to give the impression that I am a sucker for all the Axis of Evil crap that Bush has been spouting, or that I am not a little disappointed in the results of the Six-Party talks. I am a firm supporter of a peaceful reunification of the country, which was betrayed as early as 1905, when we practically handed the country over to Japan, and again in 1945, when we divided the country at the 38th parallel & installed a puppet dictator.

FreewellJanuary 18, 2006 1:48 AM

Many thx for this review. I'll definitely check this out.

AliceJanuary 18, 2006 3:28 AM

To Jon Pais:

I have seen this film, so I feel free to reply to your comment. This film does not glorify the leader of North Korea. It also does not portray North Korea as strong or beautiful, it shows how flawed and helpless the people really are, even in the capital (which they adknowledge is worlds ahead of the countryside). I found the documentary fascinating in that I saw no political motivation behind it at all. The filmmakers simply explain how things are in North Korea, with no glossy words (except for the mass games themselves, which are truly worthy of such) to glaze over the truth. I ask that you please consider your comments about a film you have not seen, and hold them until you have seen it.

Matthew: Excellent review, I could not agree more.

mathewJanuary 18, 2006 3:34 AM

Jon, I'd actually be quite horrified that my review makes the film like a piece of Nazi propaganda, if I didn't personally feel that you came into my review with your own opinions already armed and loaded. Let me make this clear for everyone - this film isn't a piece of North Korean propoganda. Neither is it the soft work of apologists. In particular Jon I feel you ignored me when I wrote

"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."

The film only concerns itself with politics when it directly affects the lives of the film's subjects - which as we all know is mostly through increasing the difficulty of life. This film is about the average people of North Korea, and their 'state of mind'.

The title is in reference to North Korean's state of mind, Jon. It 's a comment on the way that 50 years of isolation and heavy propoganda has affected their state of mind. Not Westerners, dear.

I suggest you watch the film. I think you might enjoy it.

jonpaisJanuary 18, 2006 6:38 AM

Alice, No political motivation at all? The Arirang Mass Games are nothing if not a celebration of nationalism and ideological unity in honor of Kim Il Sung and his son, successor & commander-in-chief Kim Jong Il. The purpose of the games is to inculcate an unswerving sense of loyalty and duty to the communist regime.

If Kim Jong Il has opened the doors to foreigners and tourists, he has done so not only to fill the coffers of state, but also as a massive demonstration to the West of his own oversized ego.

With 100,000 performers, including marching armies with fixed bayonets enacting attacks on the enemies of the DPRK, this grandiose spectacle is an abashed promotion of national strength through military might.

The event, which goes on over a period of two months, chronicles the history of North Korea, from the brutal Japanese occupation, the armed resistance in Manchuria, and liberation, concluding with a Utopian dream of a reunified Korea.

Previously, the entertainment included the spectacle of North Korean combattants sparring with opponents dressed in what appeared to be South Korean military garb, but as a result of protests, the show was toned down just a bit for mass consumption. There can be no doubt however that the show belongs to the starving and huddled masses of the North. (The stadium holds 150,000 spectators)

Nobody can say that this sublimation of the masses to a strict authoritarian regime is without its psychic costs. The two overriding themes of the exhibition are reunification and military might. I'll let the reader come to his/her own conclusion as to which takes precedence.

As J. Scott Burgeson has written, reunification is a Utopian fantasy that can never exist, as it would mean the destruction of either the Northern communist regime, or the capitalist government based on democratic principals of the South.

My aim is not to attack Gordon or his collaborators. As I said before, I have not yet seen his film. From everything I have read about Gordon's work, the reportage is fair and balanced, with the viewer being made aware of some of the daily hardships that attend the young gymnasts as they prepare for the event.

Nor am I accusing Gordon, his staff, Matthew or anyone else of trying to promote communist, nazi or republican propoganda. I do think however, that it is important to keep in mind the circumstances in which both the Games and the film are made; that the ordinary tourist is restricted as to where he can and cannot go; that the casual "sightseer" is not free to point his camera just anywhere he chooses; and finally, that no discussion of the Arirang Mass Games can take place without placing things in their historical and political context.

And yes, Matthew, I promise to see the film if you promise to watch Seoul Train.:)

LAJanuary 18, 2006 4:38 PM

As any semi conscious person knows, there are many ways to tell a story and many ways to make a documentary as there are so many angles you can take. One angle is jon pais’s, another is something I saw on Channel 4 (UK) a great half hour documentary from the Undiscovered World strand about people who smuggle South Korean films into North Korea to make them aware that North Korea isn’t as great as they are lead to believe. This documentary was the risking life, gritty, undercover type of journalism. I also watched State of Mind which I found fascinating, partly because its very different, as its lets North Korea authority tell its own story which I think is very revelatory and a fascinating perspective. The documentary fortunately doesn’t patronise its viewers and think their ‘naïve viewers’ (unlike jon), they know, you know you’re getting a biased, restricted view of North Korea and you know reality for the people in the country is so much grimmer. What this film showed was that the authorities think it is perfectly fine to waste precious human resources on mass games rather mass education or anything that could improve the lot of the people, not to mention the individual emotional toll. Even without knowing any context of the mass games, I think this illustrates what type of regime we’re dealing with. It showed how deluded the otherwise intelligent middle class city dwelling North Koreans where, how unaware of the plight of their country. You saw the extent of the grip of the authorities on everyday life and the extent of the personality cult. I found this frightening and fascinating, its one thing to know and read about these things, it’s a whole different level seeing it in action. Furthermore, the fact that the regime thought that showing this would strengthen their image showed how utterly warped they are. I don’t call this ‘playing into the hands of the regime.’ In fact it’s the other way round. After seeing the trip to the botanical garden where there are only two flowers, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong (I think that was in this documentary) you’re left in no doubt of what type of regime this is. As the original review said it’s a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of part of North Korean society, one which we would never see otherwise. It might not be the life of the majority of North Koreans but as jon pointed out there’s another documentary that has shown life of the majority of North Koreans. It’s always good to see another perspective to add to the other types of stories of North Korea that have been shown to get a fuller picture. Sorry, that’s stating the obvious, I’m starting to sound like jon now, so I’d better stop. PS Matthew, the review did do a fair enough job , secondly the only reason I’m bothering to reply to such an obviously narrow minded criticisms is that the documentary is excellent and I’m sure everybody will disregard such wildly of the mark comments, but I’m just making doubly sure (and I really hate being patronised).

mrmarzoJanuary 19, 2006 12:53 AM

They are going to be playing this is the San Francisco Korean American Film Festival in february, as well as 'The Game of their lives' The director of Taegukgi, and the director of Duelist will be there as well. And my film will be playing too, 'Midnight in a Perfect World'

anonJanuary 19, 2006 9:02 AM

for goodness' sake, you can download this thing off the net (unless you're too much of a straightedge to do that either), if you're so adamantly against supporting it financially in any way. but perhaps you should at least offer the courtesy to watch it first before spouting your rants against others, likening them to nazi sympathizers and so forth.