A State of Mind – A Review by Amy Tan3 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
Following Director Daniel Gordon’s 2002 award-winning documentary The Game of Their Lives, Gordon’s independent production company, VeryMuchSo productions was granted permission from the North Korean film authorities to make a second documentary.The resulting film was A State of Mind, an observational piece following two young gymnasts, 13-year-old Pak Hyon Sun and 11-year-old Kim Song Yun and their families for over eight months in the lead up to the Mass Games, the largest choreographed human performance in the world.
The girls practise for the Mass Games for hours on end with the single desire to perform before Kim Jung Il. “I long for the day when I perform for the general so I train through the pain,” says Pak Hyon Sun. The footage of the Mass Games is spectacular and remarkable. The Games which comprise of thousands of men, women and children working together in synchronised precision embody the basic notion of socialism which preaches that individuals must think of themselves as part of the collective will of the nation and not as a single entity. North Korea follows a strict philosophy known as the Juche Idea which revolves around the worship of the Kim dynasty — Kim Il Sung, their Eternal President who died in 1994 but remains Head of State, and his son, Kim Jung Il, known as the general.
The film opens with the description: “North Korea is the least visited, least known, least understood country in the world.” Through the following of the girls’ Mass Games practices, A State of Mind provides a rare glimpse into what life is like in one of the world’s least-known societies. While the world views North Korea with loathing for its totalitarian rule and its possession of nuclear weapons, the film offers a humanizing perspective through the girls and their families.
One of the film’s interesting moments occurs at a practice where the gymnastics teacher calls on one participant to sing. The girl struts forward and sings in a mock opera voice about their leaders’ greatness. Amused, the other girls burst into laughter and follow along. In a country where rote recitations of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il’s greatness are emphasized, this moment is undeniably candid.
The interviews with the girls and their families also offer insight into life in North Korea. Through Song Yun’s family, we see a strict father who is proud of his daughters for being able to contribute in serving the general while interviews with Hyon Sun’s family reveal a loving relationship between mother and daughter. Given the limited portrayal of the ideological workings in North Korea, A State of Mind successfully captured North Koreans as real people and that in itself is a feat.
Despite all the rigorous training that the girls endured in order to perfect their choreography for the Mass Games, Kim Jung Il failed to turn up for any of the performances even though it was on for 20 days. Hyon Sun was disappointed that the general could not turn up but sought comfort in the fact that he was too busy serving the country. One cannot help but wonder if their faith in their leader is misplaced.
Part of Sinema’s vision to reach out to independent films around the world, A State of Mind will be having its premiere screening on the 9th of April 2009 at 8.00pm and will be shown throughout the month of April. In conjunction with the Sinema Academy of Motion Pictures’ SAMPLIFY Screen Series, there will be two special screenings featuring producer Nicholas Bonner in candid conversations with East Asian scholars and other documentary filmmakers (9 April and 10 April at 8 pm).