“A riveting BBC documentary that illuminates the character of that nation.” — Jeff Shannon, SEATTLE TIMES
“Striking footage from North Korea, the country with the world’s fewest visitors.” — Harvey S. Karten, COMPUSERVE
“Priceless footage inside the secret church-state of North Korea and the beautiful Mass Games, this documentary sheds little light on the people themselves.” — Ron Wilkinson, MONSTERS AND CRITICS
“Gordon gives an intimate, balanced account of how political power, famine, power shortages and a hatred of America have shaped their young lives.” — Paul Malcolm, L.A. WEEKLY
“The biggest value of the movie is the depiction of Pyongyang life, the elaborate Mass Games choreography, a wondrous road trip to the revered Mount Paektu, and the ideological mind-set of typical North Korean citizens.” — G. Allen Johnson, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
A State of Mind
by Ed Park
August 9th, 2005 11:08 AM
A State of Mind
Directed by Daniel Gordon
British director Daniel Gordon’s doc A State of Mind tracks two young gymnasts as they prep for the 2003 Mass Games, an enormous “socialist realism spectacle” dedicated to leader Kim Jong Il—who may or may not attend. The profiled tumblers, Pak Hyon Sun, 13, and her teammate Kim Song Yun, 11, are endearingly familiar—kvetching about family members, hogging food, playing hooky—which makes the de rigueur anti-American statements all the more chilling. (Even the nightly power failures are blamed on the U.S.)
The main event is the girls’ elaborate, bone-crunching, months-long rehearsal, done in the service of a patriotic epic (6,000 performers, 40 shows). There’s also breathtaking footage of that North Korean specialty, the stadium-placard mosaic; both large-scale productions have societal utility, subsuming the individual into a mass movement. By scoring some of the routines to vaguely techno, decidedly Western music, Gordon at times risks creating too slick a package—or is this simply the commercial half-life of propaganda?
The aftermath of the Korean War in the north is, to outsiders, both well-known and not known at all. With amazing access, Gordon captures the grand follies of the country’s juche (self-reliance) philosophy and mundane traces of paranoia, from towering statues (“We have so many heroes in this country it’s impossible to count them,” Pak says) to a kids’ cartoon in which militaristic squirrels plot an assassination. More valuable are the detailed portraits of the two girls’ families, with all their tensions and affections. (Kim’s father appears the sensitive intellectual, wondering in nonbelligerent tones about the just-begun war in Iraq.) The country’s woes aren’t papered over—an interview with Pak’s mom about the severe famine in the ’90s is touted as the first such account given to a Westerner—but one leaves the film with the Twilight Zone sense that the place isn’t quite the hellhole prior reports have suggested.
Reviewed by Noel Murray
August 9th, 2005
The title of Daniel Gordon’s documentary A State Of Mind refers both to the will of two young North Korean gymnasts and to North Korea itself. Gordon first went there a few years ago to make the 2002 documentary The Game Of Their Lives, about the astonishing run of the North Korean soccer team in the 1966 World Cup competition, and the government trusted the British filmmaker enough to invite him back in 2003 to document the “Mass Games,” a synchronized athletic display that celebrates the subordination of the individual to the collective. Gordon records what it takes to get 13-year-old Pak Hyon Sun and 11-year-old Kim Song Yun ready for the pageant—namely, hour after hour of ritualistic training—while also covering what it’s like to live in a place where a “worker’s siren” blows at 7 a.m., and homes are outfitted with state-sponsored radio sets that can be turned down, but not off.
Gordon describes North Korea at the outset as “the least visited, least known, least understood country in the world,” but that’s a slight overstatement. The nation is more of an anachronism: the last of the sustainable socialist states. (Though with its rampant malnutrition and reliance on foreign aid, it may not be sustainable for long.) A State Of Mind enters the girls’ classrooms, where history gets broken down into a simple us-vs.-them story, with the “them” being American imperialists, and the “us” being a perfect nation led by Kim Jong Il, whose greatness is explained by a pie chart. A State Of Mind presents North Korea as a curious and contradictory culture, built on outraged victimhood—inspired by the American military actions of the Korean War—in concert with a desperately enforced idealism.
But most of that analysis is between the frames. Even though Gordon deploys the usual authoritarian British documentary style—complete with know-it-all narration—he avoids passing judgment. He’s clearly fascinated by the enthusiasm and dedication of his hosts, who need to believe that their leaders mean well. Unlike the athletes and artists of the former Soviet Bloc, these girls and their families aren’t cynics. A State Of Mind was beautifully shot and crisply edited to emphasize the Mass Games’ pageantry, but amid the synchronized blocks of performers, Gordon singles out the cranky coaches and giggling schoolgirls, subtly emphasizing how the individual endures even when she’s trying hard not to.