A fascinating mixture of cinema verite and essay filmmaking A State Of Mind connects culture, history and politics into a complex exploration of one of the world's most closed nations - North Korea. After extensive negotiations with Pyongyang government, filmmaker Daniel Gordon and producer Nicolas Bonner were granted unprecedented - and unrestricted - access to film a pair of gymnast instruction, 11-year-old Kim Song Yun and 13-year-old Pak Hyon Sun practiced through exhaustion - doing pirouettes and cartwheels on a cement floor - and proudly displayed their love for great General Kim Jong II. But more than a character expose, A State Of Mind unravels some of the political meaning behind this epic sports celebration while placing the country's current political status - as a "rogue nation" - in perspective with some of its most important and traumatic historical moments. While A State Of Mind brings never-before-seen images of state -regulated schools, pubs and artistic performances, it is its daring ability to illustrate "the hardships of their lives in a manner almost never permitted by the Pyongyang government" (Anthony Faiola, Washington Post) that makes this a "terrific" (Amy Taubin, Film Comment) documentary. Yet, when the film explores how the brutal 1950s U.S. bombings - which killed over 2 million North Koreans - still as a lingering trauma in this nation of 22 million, one is forced to re-think several assumptions about the nature of anti-American sentiment to glimpse into the real North Korea.
Billed as "a complex exploration of one of the world's most closed nations," A State of Mind
purports to offer unprecedented insight into life in North Korea, a country infamously cited by George W. Bush as a member of "the axis of evil." British filmmaker Daniel Gordon's beautifully photographed 2003 documentary certainly takes us deeper into the culture of this isolated land that any Westerner has been in the past half century. In focusing on two female gymnasts, aged 11 and 13, and their preparations for the "socialist realism extravaganza" known as the Mass Games, Gordon shines a light on their daily existence; although the people are hardly prosperous, life in Pyongyang, the capital city, seems reasonably normal (except perhaps for the state radio broadcasts that are pumped into every resident's home and can be turned down, but not off). What's more, the discipline and dedication of young Kim Song Yun and Pak Hyon Sun, as well as the thousands of others who participate in the Mass Games, results in a performance of astonishing skill and splendor (captured in A State of Mind
's final and most impressive sequence). Still, it's safe to say that a government as secretive as North Korea's wouldn't have granted "unrestricted access" to a foreign film crew if they anticipated that anything controversial might be revealed. Indeed, what Gordon refers to as "an all-encompassing belief structure imposed on the people"--based on an unquestioning devotion to dictator Kim Jong Il (known as "the General") and the sublimation of the individual for the good of the state--comes through loud and clear in every interview. Even the few problems mentioned, like food shortages or nightly power blackouts in Pyongyang, are attributed to various national disasters or, most often, the wickedness of American "imperialist aggressors." Of course, with Bush's foreign policy having aroused the enmity of most of the rest of the world, it's getting harder for Americans to be scornful of those whom we have alienated. If anything, especially considering their nascent nuclear capability, A State of Mind
shows us that North Korea is not a country to be taken lightly. --Sam Graham