Pak Hyon Sun
Kim Song Yun
Kim Jong Il
As a film about synchronized gymnastics, A State of Mind is gorgeous to behold, but in fact, it might very well be the most powerful and important documentary of the year.
For two young girls in North Korea, 13-year-old Pak Hyon Sun and 11-year-old Kim Song Yun, the upcoming Mass Games are a chance to show their love and devotion for North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, or as they call him “Dear General.” This documentary by Daniel Gordon (The Game of Their Lives) follows the girls’ months of rigorous training while shining a spotlight on this country’s rather secluded society.
How much do we really know about North Korea? Some will have heard about the great threat it poses to the United States without really knowing much beyond what our beloved government and the media tells us. Few people, and none under 30, will even remember that the US was involved in a civil war in Korea almost a decade before the Vietnam War. Oh, yeah, and North Korea is also one of the last remaining countries to follow the communist ideology under their beloved leader Kim Jong-il. Beyond that, we don’t know very much, which is why there’s a feeling of foreboding as you watch Daniel Gordon’s amazing documentary filmed over the course of 2003.
The true subject of Gordon’s film is far more innocent, as he explores North Korea’s celebratory Mass Games, an impressive display of synchronized dance and gymnastics involving literally thousands of young North Koreans, who train for months. Gordon explores this topic through the eyes of two young girls whose drive to be the best gymnasts can be traced back to their love for the “Dear General” who leads their country. In the months leading up to the September games, Gordon’s camera is ever-present in the girls’ lives, watching their training, going into their homes and classrooms where communist and anti-American propaganda is pumped into their young impressionable minds almost non-stop.
It’s actually quite amazing how much access Gordon was given into this very different world and the resulting footage, because it allows him to use the Mass Games as a cover to explore the mindset of the country and its people, how they think and why they blindly follow a leader who declares the “U.S. Imperialists” as the country’s biggest threat. Gordon’s thorough coverage include interviews with the girls and their family giving true insight into the North Koreans’ view of the rest of the world, as they discuss America’s invasion of Iraq, the SARS epidemic as well as the extreme poverty that took hold of the country after the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994. The new North Korea is about promoting “self-reliance” among the people, while training them to be loyal to their leader as they’re assimilated into the communist hive mind. It’s multiple levels of irony that permeates what ends up being a riveting film.
The film’s only lull is about an hour into it as it spends far too long on the girls’ mundane family lives and a class field trip to Mount Paektu , the North Korean Mecca. Fortunately, the last act gets back on topic, showing the hours leading up to the Mass Games. It’s quite stunning to watch literally thousands of dancers and gymnasts act as one to create intricate choreographed routines that have to be seen to be believed. The bitter irony is that the girls train for months and do all that work, and their beloved leader never shows up for a single performance.
The scariest realization from watching the film is that if the US ever did invade North Korea and tries to oust Kim Jong-il, as in Iraq, there would probably be mass suicide by the nation’s people, who have been brainwashed from birth. It’s the kind of eerie devotion to a leader that bears an eerie resemblance to the devotion Hitler received from his people, as seen in the excellent German WWII drama Downfall. Unlike Germany and even Iraq, North Korea is organized and prepared for us, having almost nightly air raid sirens in case the “U.S. Imperialists” decide to invade. Even more impressive (and scary) are the huge ranks of military personnel marching in unison through the streets on the leader’s birthday, looking eerily like the clone armies from “Star Wars”. Then again, after watching the movie, I’d be more worried about an invasion by thousands of synchronized gymnasts.
The Bottom Line:
This gorgeous and compelling documentary can be appreciated on a number of levels, from the beauty of the choreographed spectacles to the deep shock of watching these young kids essentially being brainwashed by their government.