A State of Mind
Dir. Daniel Gordon. 2004. N/R. 94mins. Documentary.
When it comes to North Korea, we in the West have a pretty limited repertoire of images: Kim Jong Il's wild, high-rise hairdo, research plants developing nuclear weapons and that's about it. In this intelligent and provocative film, British documentarian Gordon (The Game of Their Lives) gives us a new perspective, following two teenage gymnasts in their yearlong preparations for a massive, state-sponsored, choreographed spectacle.
In a neat twist that Gordon lets speak for itself, the teens and their families embody the Eisenhower-era ideal mourned by cultural conservatives. The families spends evenings together, the kids are polite and obedient, and the girls' adolescent romanticism is wholesomely channeled...toward Kim Jong Il. Indeed, they push themselves through grueling practices in the hopes that he will see their contribution. That kind of stability, of course, depends upon a society intensely focused on the values of conformity and obedience.
Gordon mostly lets the images do the talking, but his position is clear: The point of these costly rallies is to reinforce state ideology and subordinate "the individual's desires to the needs of the collective." In fact, the compelling film is essentially a gloss on Susan Sontag's essay "Fascinating Fascism," which put the deification of the leader and the fetishization of large regimented groups at the center of fascist aesthetics. Ritually invoking Kim Jong Il as "our father the general," North Koreans eagerly embrace these opulent spectacles while meekly tolerating regular power outages and food shortages.—Hank Sartin