A State of Mind
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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
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This is not the first movie on North Korea for filmmakers Daniel Gordon and Nick Bonner. Gordon, a former sports producer for Sky Sports and BBC, shot his first feature length project on the North Korean soccer team to the 1966 World Cup in England. That film, 2002's "The Game of Their Lives," went on to garner great critical acclaim and is one of the few films - if perhaps the only - to be shown near simultaneously in both North and South Korea.
Using the connections they had made in the production of "The Game of Their Lives," as well as the goodwill they had fostered with the North Korean government in making a nonpolitical film, Gordon and Bonner set out shortly thereafter to start work on "A State of Mind," for which they were given unlimited access, a rare privilege in North Korea.
The filmmakers spent the better part of 2003 in North Korea shooting two aspiring prepubescent female gymnasts and their families in Pyongyang. The camera follows them into their homes, showing us scenes of life that take place everyday all over the world - a mother rousting her child from bed, a grandmother pestering the granddaughter to do her homework, a quiet evening at home with the family around the television, three generations of women preparing meals, children trying to find ways to escape from their chores, a father complaining that he lives in a houseful of women who do nothing but chat, chart, chat.
Equally there are scenes that could not have been filmed anywhere else. The average citizen-athlete continually reminds us that he or she practices sport for the glory and amusement of the General (Kim Jong Il), who protects and guides the North Koreans through a dangerous and hostile world. Each Pyongyang apartment comes with preinstalled state radio, affixed to the wall, which can be turned down but can never be turned off. The family television is a gift from the state in thanks for their daughter's participation in the mass games. The father of one of the girls, a university instructor, reveals that for many years North Koreans couldn't understand the peace sign they saw foreigners making in footage broadcast on state television. A teacher solemnly instructs her students on the three great aspects for which Kim Jong Il is internationally admired - his ideology, his leadership, and his aura.
The main part of the film has Gordon and Bonner following the two girls as they train in preparation for the annual mass games, a gargantuan show featuring thousands of performers in elaborately choreographed dance. Like kids everywhere, the two girls featured here would at times rather be out playing with friends than practicing their routines, but for the most part seem happy in their lives and in their chance to perform at the main event. There's no post-games follow-up, but you know the girls must have disappointed that the General did not attend any of their performances.
Like "The Game of Their Lives," what makes "A State of Mind" truly special is that the filmmakers keep their opinions to themselves and let their subjects and the camera do the talking. The polemicizing has been left to the reviewers and the reporters, a very good example of which is contained in the bonus section of the DVD, a 5-minute feature from CNN in which "reporter" Paula Zahn makes it clear to her audience exactly how it is supposed to interpret some of these scenes.
See it for yourself and make your own decisions.
I found parts of the film extremely disturbing. The everyday intense hatred of my country was definitely difficult to watch and I found this a distrubing aspect of the film. It made me very sad that the relations between my country and other parts of the world are so strained.
But on another level I found the film heartening in that it confirmed what I have always believed; people are people. No matter where they live. I watch two girls hanging out together, one wishing she had siblings, too instead of being an only child. I watch girls running around after class. I watch a family eating and laughing together. And it's all very human. And I think many people in my country and others need to see that. Need to see eadch other's human nature.
One complaint I have is that we only see Pyongyang which the narrator tells us is the wealthiest part of the country and it's an 'honor to live there.' I understand that a movie about a country has to have a scope but considering the limited amount of material concerning the country, I was disappointed to have such a limited view of the country to one city that is anything but typical.
Still, great film. Loved it!
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Thank you a whole lot !!