A State Of Mind

Granted unprecedented permission to shoot inside the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, English filmmaker Daniel Gordon grants us a rare glimpse of daily life inside the most secretive nations on earth, and it's just as weird as you thought. Gordon traveled to North Korea in the spring of 2003, shortly before the second Gulf War. His mission was to shoot...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Granted unprecedented permission to shoot inside the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, English filmmaker Daniel Gordon grants us a rare glimpse of daily life inside the most secretive nations on earth, and it's just as weird as you thought. Gordon traveled to North Korea in the spring of 2003, shortly before the second Gulf War. His mission was to shoot a documentary about the bogglingly elaborate Mass Games, a grand, socialist-realist extravaganza that's considered to be the largest choreographed spectacle in the world. Divided into three segments — gymnastics, backdrops, music — the Mass Games stand as the supreme image of the communist ideal; employing close to 100,000 synchronized participants, the spectacle perfectly exemplifies the suppression of the desires of the individual to the needs of the collective. Gordon follows two young gymnasts — 13-year-old Pak Hyon Sun and 11-year-old Kim Song Yun — as they undergo a grueling practice regimen in hopes making the final cut and performing in front of their beloved leader, Kim Jong Il, aka "The General." Gordon even goes inside the girl's state-allocated apartments in the capital city of Pyongyang, where North Korean state radio is piped into every kitchen in a most Orwellian fashion: you can turn it up, but you can't turn it off. Thanks to her participation in the 2002 Mass Games, Hyon Sun's family even has a TV set, but there's only one station and it broadcasts nothing but propaganda for 5 hours each day. Evidenced by Gordon's footage, the Mass Games certainly live up to all the hype — the "background" segment in which 12,000 North Korean school kids create intricate, animate mosaics depicting scenes from revolutionary history is particularly amazing — but equally astonishing is what each North Korean has to say about the past, present and future of their nation. History is peppered with bizarre notions involving U.S. planes dropping disease carrying insects; the years of famine following Kim Il Sung death are written off as the result of bad weather; and citizens live in a constant fear of U.S. aggression (understandable considering the 37,000 U.S. stationed only 30 miles south of the DMZ separating the two Koreas) that verges on paranoia, and only intensifies once the bombs begin to fall on Baghdad. Most mystifying, however, is the bizarre hero-worship surrounding the fingure of Kim Jong Il, a nationwide personality cult that makes Joe Stalin and Chairman Mao look like D-list celebrities.

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