A STATE OF MINDNR
Eclipsing the many scenes of mindlessness in Daniel Gordon's A State of Mind is a single image of a concrete slab: It is where, in the polar air of Pyongyang, a group of girls perform cartwheels, handstands and flying leaps to a trainer's metronomic clap. The girls, members of an elite group of 80,000 gymnasts who participate in "Mass Games," North Korea's summer show of military and athletic prowess, practice every wintry day. At first, the adamantine concrete is a constant reminder of the unyielding conformity demanded by the draconian state, but as the documentary progresses and girl after girl professes her devotion to her "father," Kim Jong II, the concrete slab comes to represent the incredible power of the mind to concretize.
For all the claims by the filmmakers of unprecedented access, their interviews were confined to two girls, both talented gymnasts, and their families, blind adherents to the Marxist ideology of the collective that serves as cover for North Korea's version of totalitarianism. The girls, 15-year-old Pak Hyon-sun and 11-year-old Kim Song-yun, live a privileged existence in the nation's capital. Pak's grandparents sleep on a mat in the family room so that she can have her own bedroom, and although gymnasts receive no remuneration for their performances, the family enjoys a new TV with broadcasts from the state-run network, a gift for Pak's past participation in Mass Games. Everyone, including Grandma, professes love and admiration for "our general," and in the girls there's an unmistakable hint of eroticism in their continually professed desire to dance for Kim Jong II.
Daniel Gordon received permission to film the 2003 Mass Games, no doubt because his previous documentary, The Game of Their Lives, was about the winning 1966 North Korean World Cup team. A State of Mind also provides snapshots of one family's visit to a country cooperative. Few people are able to travel that far from their homes, and no one journeys anywhere in North Korea without a state-issued permit, so the trip from Pyongyang is proof of the privileged status the girls and their relatives possess. By far the most impressive footage in A State of Mind is of the games, which are a literal and a symbolic declaration of the subjugation of the individual to the group. In addition to the serried gymnasts, there are 120,000 youngsters in the stands who, in lockstep, hold up placards of various colors to create a fluctuating display, semaphores of their devotion to the state for the millions who watch the games.
A State of Mind is a highly stylized documentary with flashy montages, but in unstaged moments, at home or in school with the girls, it turns observant and oddly vacuous and insubstantial. Clearly, the government realized that providing the filmmakers unlimited time with these two girls wasn't risky: They're votaries, along with their families, and while their cult-like devotion to Kim Jong II is noteworthy, the documentary offers only quick glimpses into the more interesting story of how they got that way.
To be fair, no one in the West knows very much about what has transpired in North Korea over the last 50 years; only since the fall of the Soviet Union have we learned something of the penurious lives of its citizens. It's wise to remember that when watching A State of Mind, which will raise many more questions about totalitarianism, and about the foreign policies of Western countries with regard to North Korea, than it ever answers. Absent the Cold War mentality of the latter half of the 20th century, it is difficult to imagine why we persist in our characterization of North Korea as a "rogue state." If we are to believe what we see here, it's an anachronistic regime teetering on the edge of collapse, albeit a collapse the world will not want to witness-crumbling despotic states implode, leaving political and social vacuums.
North Korea can't last. Just as the behemoths of "Red" China and the Soviet Union are slowly transforming themselves to participate in a world that's increasingly interconnected, so North Korea will follow. What Daniel Gordon hits upon, however, is significant, but it is overshadowed by our fears about the country's nuclear weapons development: What happens to Pak Hyon-sun and Kim Song-yun when, on the verge of adulthood, their "father" is exposed as a demagogue or, worse, he is killed by the imperialist enemy? Bones bruised through long exposure to concrete may heal, but what of minds and spirits attuned to Mass Games and accustomed to idolatry?