A State of Mind

2 Apr

Last Friday, Kate and I headed over to the Bookworm, a local cafe over on Renminnanlu. They’re practically an institution here in Chengdu (and Beijing!) and host Chengdu’s major cultural attraction, the Bookworm International Literary Festival. Every year, they bring in artists, authors, and awesome people for lectures and talks. I didn’t end up going to any of the literary ones – I wasn’t interested in most of the offerings, but I did show up for the film portion on their last weekend.

Kate and I managed to see the North Korea double feature put on by Koryo films. Since I think North Korea (excuse me, DPRK) is absolutely fascinating, it was a blast. Despite the wind and the rain, we just managed to squeak in on time and paid for our tickets and received our glass (paper cup) of complementary wine.

Koryo is mostly a tour company that branched out into making films. They’ve been going into DPRK for over 15 years. In 2003, they followed around two young gymnasts in their preparation for the Mass Games. This is no misnomer – each Mass Game usually has anywhere from 80,000 to 120,000 participants, who have been practicing non-stop year round. Each choreographed skit is set to the backdrop of 12,000 schoolchildren with flashcards, making a huge mosaic on the far wall. It’s completely trippy.

A State of Mind” was actaully really interesting. The first girl they followed around was Pak Hyon Sun, who was thirteen at the time of the film. She had already participated in 3 Mass Games, and was considered to be the top gymnast of her year, which is why they picked her. Basically, her life was practicing for these games. Hyon Sun lived with her parents and grandparents in Pyongyang. She was, in the words of the filmmaker, utterly boring. But to make things more interesting, they found another girl in her cohort, Kim Song Yon (aged 11), to brighten things up. Song Yun had two older sisters and a dog*. This family was much more interesting – the father was a professor, the mother actually had things of interest to say, the kids had character, even if by North Korean standards Song Yun was rubbish at gymnastics. (Still much better than I’d ever be!)

The film starts out in February, where, despite the bitter cold, these children are outdoors, practicing over their routine. They start off at two hours a day, but as time goes on and the Games come closer and closer, they end up spending most of their waking hours in practice. After all, they are performing for the General (Kim Jong Il) and any mistake will be easily spotted against the backdrop of a thousand other dancers moving in unison.

Frankly, the shots of the Mass Games were utterly terrifying and amazing. I mean, this is a regime that makes the elites (if you are living in Pyongyang, you definitely belong to the elite middle class) dance in perfect unison for the amusement of the Leader. There were a couple of key quotes from Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, but I didn’t write any of those down. It was still chilling.

Of course, at the end, Pak Hyon Sun and Kim Song Yun do perform. Hyon Sun is given the great honor of performing front row center. Song Yun is in the second row. They perform their piece along with 80,000 other participants, twice a day for a month.

Kim Jong Il did not attend any of the shows.

The second half was two episodes of the Canadian TV show Departures, which was described as “two young smug twenty-somethings acting like idiots abroad”. Despite that opening salvo, it was really quite good. Even if I wanted to smack both of them. Basically, they toured around DPRK and had their opinons changed. There were some really goregous shots, especially from the North Korean side of the DMZ. My only complaint was that both of the guys kept trying to be deep and insightful about Korean culture and just sounded like total idiots. (Maybe that’s because I’ve studied anthropology?) I don’t know. Either way, it was a total sell for touring around in North Korea, which you are totally allowed to do these days!

Yes, both films were shameless plugs for Koryo Tours. They do trips from Beijing to Pyongyang, and mostly it seems to cost somewhere from 1500 to 2000 USD, which is firmly out of my budget. Damn. Anyways, if you’re interested, you should definitely go for it. I mean, who doesn’t want a DPRK immigration stamp in their passport? Come on.




*At the end of the film, the director answered questions and said that the dog was totally legit, despite everyone’s utter disbelief. I mean, this is DPRK. A dog, really? Emergency meat substitute, sure, why not.


2 Responses to “A State of Mind”

  1. Dad April 2, 2012 at 9:59 pm #

    The Rocketts to a whole new level. Still, as you say, way cool.

  2. Karen April 2, 2012 at 10:22 pm #

    This is mind boggling. Do these kids go to school or only practice? Who could choreograph all of these performances? All I can say is wow. I don’t know any 11 year olds in the US who would have the discipline or diligence to practice the kind of hours that is required.

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