Monday, July 19, 2010

Seoul Personalities : Revealing the Hermit Kingdom

To say that North Korea is a poorly understood nation would be an understatement of massive proportions. Closed off - in large part by its own choice - from the rest of the planet, and viewed with fear and hostility by much of the world, particularly the West, North Korea is the proverbial riddle wrapped up in an enigma. With news reports on the mysterious North inevitably focusing on its nuclear program, missile exports and the well publicized eccentricities of its political leadership, it’s easy to forget that ultimately, North Korea is a country inhabited by over 23 million people.

British documentary film director Daniel Gordon has done perhaps more than anyone to shed light on the daily lives of North Koreans. In three films shot about the country, “The Game of Their Lives” (2002), “A State of Mind” (2004) and “Crossing the Line” (2006), he was given virtually unprecedented access to the “unseen” North Korea to present the human side of the mysterious land.

‘A Good Football Story’

In the minds of many film fans and North Korea junkies, Gordon and the Hermit Kingdom have become intertwined. The odd thing about this, the director explains, is that he got into North Korea because, of all things, football. “Because of the subject matter, many Koreans think I was interested in North Korea. But I just went to tell a good football story.”

This football story, of course, is the miraculous North Korean upset of Italy 1-nil in the first round of the 1966 FIFA World Cup in England. In the second round, North Korea went up three-nil against Portugal before Portuguese football legend Eusebio scored four goals to lead his side to victory. “My ambition was just to meet Park Du-ik, the goal scorer against Italy,” he says, an ambition that would result in his first documentary film, “The Game of Their Lives,” in which he meets with members of the 1966 team to tell the tale of their dramatic victory. “If I’d planned [to tell a story about North Korea], it would have been obvious, but I just wanted to tell the story of the football. I got into other issues like the Korean War, but in the context of building a successful football team.”

Incredible Candidness

Gordon’s second film, “A State of Mind” (2004), follows two young schoolgirls, Kim Hyon-son and Kim Song-yon, as they prepare for the upcoming Arirang Mass Games, the largest, most spectacular event of its kind anywhere in the world. While footage of the games is impressive enough, the film was all the more mesmerizing for its remarkably intimate look at the families and daily lives of its subjects. Gordon explains that this was largely due to the long time spent in the country while filming. “We spent a lot of time there,” he says, “and we weren’t filming all the time. Sometimes we would just visit families’ homes and have dinner.” This interaction built up trust that is readily apparent in the film.

Oddly enough, given the film`s captivation of Western (and indeed, South Korean) audiences, North Korean audiences found the film, well, dull. “In North Korea, everybody loves ‘The Game of Their Lives,’ but people there think ‘A State of Mind’ is boring,” Gordon explains. “One of the things they [North Koreans] find most interesting is why people find their lives so interesting.”

He relates a story from the 2004 Pyongyang Film Festival. “After the film, Kim’s mother comes to us and says she found it interesting seeing themselves on film - they don’t have camcorders up there - but she still didn’t know why it was interesting.”

“A State of Mind” is a film that sort of evolved over the course of shooting, says Gordon. It originally started out as a film on the Mass Games themselves, he explains. “Then it became a film on the making of the mass games and why. And then it became a film about family life in Pyongyang. It evolved.”

Happy Within Their Own Context

Is North Korea misunderstood? Well, according to Gordon, it is, but why that is so is a bit more complex, and Pyongyang has done itself few favors. “They don’t help themselves,” he says. “We have an image of North Korea that’s in large part made by our media and what they say about themselves.” And what they say about themselves through official media outlets, unfortunately, is not likely to win any public relations awards.

Still, he says, it’s important to remember that North Korea is made up of people, who, like people anywhere, are individuals. “We have this view that all North Koreans are the same,” he says, “but it’s a country of 20 million individuals. There is the collective, but within this, there are 20 million people.” Later, he adds, “We [North Koreans and the rest of the world] have a lot more in common. The differences are huge, of course, but so are the similarities.” To paraphrase Sting, the North Koreans love their children, too.

Given the difficult circumstances in which North Koreans have been living over the last decade, it’s natural enough to wonder whether they are happy. To Gordon, this is a relative question. “They are happy... within a context of themselves,” he explains. “This is really within the context of the situation. Do they want to be more comfortable? Yes. But they work really hard. They want their children to go to the best schools to have a better life. How many people are happy in the United Kingdom? It’s all relative.”

This, of course, is a point that can be easy to forget. To illustrate, he relates: “A journalist once said to me, ‘I hear North Koreans get really drunk to forget their troubles.’ I said, ‘Oh? Have you been to the north of England?’”

Only 60 Years of Division

While Gordon has spent a good deal of time in the North, he’s also visited the South four times over the course of his work, giving a unique vantage point from which to compare the two halves of the divided peninsula. Again, it’s the similarities that stand out. “Aside from the material images, people are really similar,” he says. “Once, I met a man here who reminded me of a man I knew in North Korea. The mannerisms are the same.”

Perhaps given the history of Korea, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. As he succinctly points out, “Korea has some 3,000 years of history, and only 60 years of division.”
Article contributed by Seoul Selection


  1. I absolutley LOVED A State of Mind! I can't waait to see your other films! Learning what I did about North Korea and being so fascinated at the same time made this the best movie I ever watched in my entire life!