Here’s the pitch: Waiting for Guffman meets Bring It On . . . in exotic Pyongyang! British director Daniel Gordon’s doc A State of Mind tracks two young gymnasts as they prep for the 2003 Mass Games, an enormous “socialist realism spectacle” dedicated to leader Kim Jong Il—who may or may not attend. The profiled tumblers, Pak Hyon Sun, 13, and her teammate Kim Song Yun, 11, are endearingly familiar—kvetching about family members, hogging food, playing hooky—which makes the de rigueur anti-American statements all the more chilling. (Even the nightly power failures are blamed on the U.S.)
The main event is the girls’ elaborate, bone-crunching, months-long rehearsal, done in the service of a patriotic epic (6,000 performers, 40 shows). There’s also breathtaking footage of that North Korean specialty, the stadium-placard mosaic; both large-scale productions have societal utility, subsuming the individual into a mass movement. By scoring some of the routines to vaguely techno, decidedly Western music, Gordon at times risks creating too slick a package—or is this simply the commercial half-life of propaganda?
The aftermath of the Korean War in the north is, to outsiders, both well-known and not known at all. With amazing access, Gordon captures the grand follies of the country’s juche (self-reliance) philosophy and mundane traces of paranoia, from towering statues (“We have so many heroes in this country it’s impossible to count them,” Pak says) to a kids’ cartoon in which militaristic squirrels plot an assassination. More valuable are the detailed portraits of the two girls’ families, with all their tensions and affections. (Kim’s father appears the sensitive intellectual, wondering in nonbelligerent tones about the just-begun war in Iraq.) The country’s woes aren’t papered over—an interview with Pak’s mom about the severe famine in the ’90s is touted as the first such account given to a Westerner—but one leaves the film with the Twilight Zone sense that the place isn’t quite the hellhole prior reports have suggested.