A State of Mind
North Korea's socialist surrealism
Like Orwell's 1984 come to life, Daniel Gordon's 2003 film A State of Mind documents totalitarianism, complete with ascetic state housing, rations, daily power outages, censorship, and a heavy dose of propaganda. Radios that broadcast state-sanctioned programming are installed in every kitchen. (They may be turned down, but not off.) But this isn't Oceania; it's North Korea. And there is no Winston Smith.
Instead, the protagonists are two young girls, ages eleven and fourteen, whose principal goal in life is to perform in the Mass Games in front of Kim Jong-il, whom they call "the General," or sometimes "our father." Desperate for a Big Brother, they crave the General's gaze. "I long for the day when I will perform for the General," says the older girl. All of their gymnastic training--at least two hours each day of rapid back bends, flips, and twists--is for him.
Adults, too, are in awe of Kim, "who the whole world looks up to." Gordon never comments on the (literal and figurative) inaccuracy of this statement or others like it. He fears the film may be used to justify invading Korea to "liberate" its citizens. In 2003, a year after George W. Bush coined "axis of evil," fear of a U.S. invasion of North Korea was hardly paranoid, and Pyongyang citizens in the film seem anxious for it. Watching a military parade that would have made Goebbels envious, one of the gymnasts' grandmothers claims "even arrogant Americans tremble with fear when they see this."
This arrogant American was merely mesmerized by the pageantry and scale, the elaborate human mosaic of armies marching in perfect squares, their movements precise as machines. The parades lead up to the Mass Games, a similar mosaic, no less precise, but far more fluid and colorful and downright surreal. Up to 20,000 gymnasts can be involved in one performance, each a mere speck in the pointillist metaphor for the communist ideal of one united will. I was reminded of Bert
Holldobler and E.O. Wilson's The Superorganism, in which they argue that ants are not separate organisms but more akin to cells of a much larger creature. Like an ant, with its famous ability to lift fifty times its weight, the gymnasts are superhuman in their contortions and in the speed, precision, and beauty of their movements. The creature they create alternately undulates like a jellyfish and explodes like fireworks.
Gordon also fears the film may be used as communist propaganda. After seeing his footage--what brilliant spectacles can be attained when so many work in unison--I began to see his point. You may judge which of Gordon's fears is most justified when the U-M Center for Korean Studies shows the film at the Michigan Theater February 13.
[Originally published in February, 2010.]