State of Mind, A

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/23/05 13:27:40

"Welcome to North Korea, the worlds largest cult compound."
5 stars (Awesome)

Watching "A State of Mind", two contradictory impressions of the people of North Korea went through my head. The first was that they were people like any other, and the ones we see are intelligent, hard-working, warm, and friendly. For the most part, they are exactly the kind of people one would desire as neighbors. The second impression is that they are part of some kind of quasi-religious cult, with the entire country serving as the planet's largest cult compound.

Scant few films have been made about North Korea, at least compared to films that use it as a generic villain, and this one initially purports to be less about the country itself than about one of its newer traditions, the Mass Games. The Games are a stunning pageant, combining music, gymnastics, and animated mosaics in a display that celebrates Communist principles. We follow two young Pyongyang girls, 13-year-old Pak Hyon-sun and 11-year-old Kim Song-yun, who spend hours after school each afternoon training for the Games, an event which happens once or twice a year, and carries great prestige because president Kim Jong-Il may be in attendance. The training is intense, and may all be for nothing if the school's group is not selected to participate in the pageant. But being selected is a great honor, and one the girls will work hard to merit.

They're nice kids. Hyon-sun is an only child from the worker class (NK society is divided into worker, intellectual, and peasant classes, all technically equal). She is committed and studious, already a veteran of several Mass Games and one of the leaders charged with working with younger students like Song-yun. Song-yun is the youngest of three children, sleeping in a different sister's room on alternating nights. She's a little less industrious, more likely to try and put off doing her homework or complain about how boring practice is. They become pretty good friends, since they live near each other and share the same interests. Hyon-sun envies Song-yun for having siblings to play with, although her family's apartment is just as crowded, with grandparents sleeping in the living room and barely enough room to turn around.

If this were a documentary about hard-working young athletic performers set anywhere else, it would be pretty standard stuff. But it's in North Korea, a land particularly closed to outsiders, and Hyon-sun's and Song-yun's world is in many ways fascinating. They reside in Pyongyang, the nation's capital, which is described as a showcase; living there is considered a privilege. If Pyongyang is as good as it gets, then the poverty in the rest of the country must be pretty sad: Food is tightly rationed, living quarters are cramped and spartan, and the electricity fails at least once a day, causing the Pak family to curse the "bloody Americans" they deem responsible.

Which is where the cult-like aspects of North Korean life come in. Every bad thing that happens is because of imperialist Americans trying to hold North Korea back. This indoctrination starts early and is a constant presence, via a radio tuned to a government news station installed in every Pyongyang apartment which can be turned down, but not off. Not that the country doesn't have reason to hate America - footage of how American bombers flattened the country during the Korean War reminds us of that - but it's an example of how effective and pervasive the propaganda is. The flip side of the propaganda is how president Kim Jong-Il is built up as larger-than-life and mythic; one of Song-yun's classes includes discussion on just which character traits make "The General" worthy of near-worship. We also see a trip by Hyon-sun to Baitou Mountain, a site considered highly spiritual to both North and South Korea, how Kim Jong-Il and his father Kim Il-Sung before him have co-opted it to build their own myth. Though the film never explicitly remarks upon it, one can't help but notice that even as events like the Mass Games are designed to de-emphasize individualism among the North Korean people, one specific North Korean is elevated quite highly.

That such points are not made explicitly probably explains why director Daniel Gordon can claim his film wasn't censored or hindered by the North Korean government at all. He's never overtly critical of the country or its leadership, providing some of the blandest narration conceivable to avoid the appearance of taking sides. He also doesn't question apparent contradictions, like the children saying anti-American slogans while wearing Mickey Mouse sweatshirts, or why Song-yun is learning English (or any foreign language) when she can't even travel to a neighboring town without paperwork - indeed, isolation and self-reliance are the nation's watchwords. So while Gordon doesn't get censored, but he doesn't say anything particularly controversial.

What he does do is to put us in these girls' world, providing the necessary exposition to allow the audience to grasp their world. It's a pretty nice job of crafting two movies in one - one about the kids, and one about the country. It would be easy for the bigger story to take over, but we do get caught up with these girls. Toward the end, when we find out that Kim Jong-Il won't necessarily lend his prestige to their event, we wind up thinking what a jerk he'd be for bailing on these kids who spent months practicing just to perform before him - and then we remember that he's Kim Jong-Il and "jerk" probably doesn't cover it. But the Games themselves are a beautiful, stunning spectacle, well worth documenting in their own right.

"A State of Mind" is a unique and intriguing look inside a country that that doesn't often provide such glimpses. It's an intriguing subject, and though Gordon doesn't take a great many risks, he presents the subject in a straightforward, interesting way.

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