I’m a big North Korea fan. Oh, wait—that sounds very bad! I’m obviously not a *fan* of a repressive and dictatorial country, but I do find the fact that a Stalinist country survives in this day and age to be fascinating. I eat up facts about and tales from North Korea like E.T eats up Reece’s Pieces. Helpfully, MUBI has a troika of docuflicks on North Korea playing right now. This is one review in Film Misery’s mini-marathon of the films.
A State of Mind, a 2004 documentary from British documentarian Daniel Gordon, follows two young North Korean girls, Hyon Sun Pak and Song Yun Kim, as they prepare to perform in the Mass Games. Have you seen the Mass Games? Holy Moses, it must be seen to be believed. This is the event where thousands of athletes perform ridiculously elaborate gymnastics perfectly in sync. Thousands more, at the same time, make up probably the largest ever human mosaic, an ever-shifting portrait of the Kims’ patriotic struggle. No CGI here!
A State of Mind weaves together footage of the girls practicing their routines with scenes from their everyday life. Their mothers fret about their homework and how much they eat. Their fathers express pride in them and their other children joining the Korean People’s Army. They struggle in their English lessons and learn of the evil American Imperialists. When Gordon filmed this, the US had just invaded Iraq. ‘You see what the Imperialists are doing,’ the teacher asks. ‘They cannot go even one year without invading some other country. Their only goal is world domination, and we may be next!’ They practice air raid drills for when the Americans finally come.
Okay, how much of this is staged, really? If you read enough books and see enough films about the DPRK, you know that it’s well-nigh impossible for an outsider to get a wholly accurate vision of the country. Were the girls’ families coached on what to say to the camera? Were they the girls’ families at all? It’s hard to tell. Gordon takes everything at face value, which leads his audience to do the same. At any rate, nothing appears feigned.
In A State of Mind’s interviews, the adults are actually very upfront about the stingy food rationing of the government, and their less-than-ideal living conditions. One woman speaks disarmingly about the trials of The Arduous March, the wave of famine which plagued the country in the mid-to-late-1990s. Of course, they blame everything on the evil Americans, but it’s as close to an on-the-record account of dissatisfaction as we’re likely to get.
What Gordon gives us, maybe better than any other film yet, is a pretty thorough examination of the North Korean psyche. (The title, after all, is ‘A State of Mind.’) There is hardly any individuality on display in Pyongyang, if any; all citizens are to see themselves as a drop in the great Korean ocean. There’s no such thing as a Special Snowflake®️ over there. Every word and action must go through a filter of ‘does this benefit everyone?’ Of course, in practice, the real filter is ‘does this benefit the Party?’
Okay, yes, this sounds horribly stifling and repressive to a Western mind. Yet, in spite of this, it’s hard not to be moved by the Mass Games themselves. Divorced from its actual construction, the sight of 100,000 people all telling a story in perfect synchronisation is really quite moving. No way in hell could this ever be done in the United States. Too many precious egos. (I’m not saying it would be a good trade-off, but I’d consider anything to get rid of reality talent shows!) I suppose, to some extent, North Korea is A State of Mind indeed.