A State of Mind
directed by Daniel Gordon
(Kino, 2006)

The two young gymnasts in A State of Mind have astonishing talent, no doubt, but they're not honing it to pursue gold at the Olympics.

Nor do they harbor any hope -- or desire, as far as we can tell -- of opening their own namesake gym, or ringing up Coca-Cola endorsements, or getting a sports champion's tour of the White House.

Most certainly not that last possibility. Pak Hyon Sun and Kim Song Yun would be horrified by that last possibility.

It is enough for them that the Great Leader, Kim Jong-Il, may see them, in the midst of thousands of others, performing in breathtaking unison at the 2003 Mass Games in North Korea.

The huge patriotic spectacle of glitz, dance and music is a showcase in a land the West sees as a crumbling, dangerous, impoverished nation led by an unstable despot.

And British documentarian Daniel Gordon must walk a very fine line between showing these girls' lives, grueling in many respects, as they are, not as Westerners -- or Kim Jong-Il, for that matter -- would like to imagine or portray them to be.

It's all the more astonishing that Gordon, who in some ways downplays the economic squalor often portrayed in the media, had access to North Korea's cult of personality at all.

But A State of Mind manages to balance out the overriding presence of North Korea's government and its focus on communal effort to focus on the gifted Pak and Kim, two girls who giggle to karaoke, squabble with their parents about homework and go on field trips -- all while training hours upon hours a day for their performances in the Mass Games' whirl of patriotism.

Part of Gordon's fortune is that any glimpse of life in North Korea, even when you're being shadowed by government handlers, is much more than most Westerners will ever be able to manage on their own. It's those day-to-day moments in Pyongyang, the capital, that mesmerize, especially with the North Korean take on the country's problems.

The daily power outages? The work of evil America. The Mass Games? Endlessly replayed on state-run TV (to say nothing of the state-run radio: Every home has one, and it can be turned down but never off).

A State of Mind pushes aside Kim Jong-Il's curtain of secrecy just a bit, and I wish it had stayed open a little longer before falling again.

review by
Jen Kopf

17 May 2008

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