Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"A State of Mind" and "Crossing the Line"

Two rare movies actually shot in North Korea recently. Although they were made by the same team they couldn't be more different, and the reason is that one of them was made for the U.S. market while the other one was made for the UK and Europe. A State of Mind is the one produced for the UK, Crossing the Line is the one made for American audiences.

Crossing the line is about James Dresnok, an American who was stationed in the DMZ in the early '60s who defected to North Korea, where he's lived ever since. The movie comes off as being so concerned with not appearing to be biased towards North Korea that it goes in the other direction, presenting the events in such a far right context that it could have been made by the John Birch Society. It's unpleasant to watch because of this. They don't just try to tell the story of the guy through interviews but frame it in such a way that everything he did comes out being condemned. I mean, I can understand their trepidation in marketing it to the U.S. but come on, this is excessive in the extreme.

"A State of Mind" is much better. The demands for ideological correctness regarding the Global War on Terror are lifted an an objective film can now shine through. A State of Mind follows the lives of two Korean girls preparing for something known as the Mass Games, a gymnastics exhibition that happens in North Korea on special occasions and that's a sort of national festival. Combines stunning and colorful gymnastics with interesting backdrops in stadiums generated by people holding colored placards and changing them in sync.

The girls live in Pyongyang, the capitol, and are part of privileged families, although not party members from what I gather, meaning that they're the equivalent of folks living in Moscow during the Soviet Union. Standards of living are higher and there isn't evidence of mass starvation.

The very interesting thing is how the movie actually humanizes the people involved. The families of the girls are revealed to be just regular families, albeit families that think very highly of the State and try to inculcate that somewhat in the kids. The celebrations of Kim Jong-Il's birthday (he's known as The General), as well as Kim Il-Sung's are recorded, and things like the daily pledge of allegiance to Kim Jong-Il and to socialism are on tape as well. The presence of the Party and of the celebration of the State are there in full form, but also how elite members of North Korean society understand these things, which is that they're at least partially justified. North Koreans aren't portrayed as mindless Asian robots, which tends to be the trend when reporting on Communism in Asia.

What's apparent is that the Revolution and the Korean War, either accidentally or on purpose contributed to a destruction of previous cultural patterns that left a very large vacuum that has been filled by state ideology praising Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, the Party, and the socialist state itself. North Korea probably got this from the Soviet Union, where Stalin was alive and in charge during the formative days of the Republic. In "Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army", by Catherine Merridale, an excellent book about the average Russian experience during World War II, the point is made after outlining how the Politruks or Political Officers who were assigned to each contingent of soldiers stirred people up with constant speeches and celebrations praising the Soviet Union that the kids experiencing this never knew anything else. Stalin became a sort of hero that people lived through, that people saw themselves in, because there was little else and this was presented as an official story.

The movie shows people who are in an unfortunate situation but who are also proud of their country, although there's only one scene where the families leave Pyongyang and venture out into the countryside.

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