Those with open minds — and maybe others, too — will find much to engage them in “A State of Mind,” an eye-opening peek at a stratum of life in North Korea via the lives of two young gymnasts prepping for Mass Games. Admirably non-judgmental docu about life in “the least visited, known, understood country in the world,” per Brit director Daniel Gordon, brings a refreshing balance to the usual blind vilification of the country. Tube slots and further fest screenings — following those in both North and South Korea — look in the cards.
Gordon had the idea for a further film about North Korea after the success of his 2002 docu, “The Game of Their Lives,” about the still-legendary visit to the U.K. of North Korea’s World Cup soccer team in 1966. From February to September 2003, a British crew followed 13-year-old schoolgirl Pak Hyon-sun and her pal, Kim Song-yun, 11, through training and family life in the lead up to the Mass Games (“the largest choreographed spectacle in the world”) celebrating the country’s 55th anniversary.
As the elite gymnasts are initially seen in outdoor group training during freezing weather in Pyongyang, Gordon weaves in cultural and historical background on the country. Steadfastly objective narration notes that the “common belief system” imposed by founder Kim Il-song was seen as necessary in the struggle to build a strong country with its own principles of independence, summed up in the word juche (self-reliance).
All those interviewed trot out the usual anti-U.S. sentiments impregnated in them by a belief system — through schooling, piped radio in apartment blocks, and the single TV channel — partly born out of the Western powers leveling the North during the Korean War. But, as the film progresses, the families and girls emerge as much more than just government-selected talking heads. Gordon stresses that at no time did their government guides and interpreters either interfere with filming or try to censor material.
Speaking for the first time on the record to a foreign journalist, Kim’s mom movingly recalls the food shortages that followed Kim Il-song’s death in ’94 — a period known as “the Arduous March.” No attempt is made to hide the precarious situation that self-reliance in a globalized world has led to. Rationing of one chicken and five eggs per person per month is still in force in the capital.
More interestingly on a human level, the families emerge as pretty similar to those in any other country. The girls skip homework for karaoke seshes, are bullied at school, and are as capricious, playful and subject to boredom as any other teens or pre-teens. They just happen to be superb group gymnasts dedicated to their sport.
Archive footage of past Mass Games is dazzlingly colorful — group celebrations of cultural and political identity that seem less strange to the Asian mind (with its focus on the collective) than the Western one (with its focus on the individual). After the original games are postponed due to the SARS outbreak, during which North Korea completely sealed its borders, they’re reskedded for September — with an ironic twist.
Tech credits are top drawer, with the film climaxing in a terrific montage drawn from the actual 40-minute perf. After giving 20 shows, the two girls were back in training the next day.
Version reviewed is the “festival” one, running about three minutes longer than that aired on U.K. digital channel BBC4 since this summer. Other, shorter versions also exist for broadcast.