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A very different portrait of North Korea — Film Review: A State of Mind

On the day that news reaches us of Kim Jong-il’s death, new contributor Hong Nguyen discusses the documentary A State of Mind, directed by Daniel Gordon (VeryMuchSo Productions, 2004)

A still from A State of Mind. Source:

Relatively little is known about the daily lives of North Korean people, exempting the glimpses into a cruel reality of famine and poverty under the late Kim Jong-il’s dictatorship. It was therefore a surprise when I watched this documentary as it honed in on a very different portrait of North Korean society – no unsettling images, no secret cameras – we are merely invited on a journey of two young female gymnasts, Park Hyeon-Son and Kim Yeong-Son, as they prepare for their performance in the country’s biggest event – the Mass Games opening ceremony. We meet their respective families, see their daily routine of school and rigorous gym practice, with building anticipation to eventually discover whether their hard work has paid off in the documentary’s grand finale style showcase of the performance itself.

A still from A State of Mind. Source:

Gordon has commented in interviews previously that their urban life is in its own bubble of privilege and stepping beyond city lines is where the even grimmer reality lies. Yet within this bubble, a social stratification system firmly exists. The focus on these two young girls, out of many other hundred participants was a well-informed choice, as they both represented two different social classes, Park and Kim being from a working class and middle class background respectively. With the well-known precedent of North Korea being so isolated and mysterious, this documentary has already captivated its viewer. Gordon encompasses varying emotions in this piece; pure fascination at the uniformity of North Korean society and how it is deep-rooted from elementary school level, the awe at how hard the children practice their routines and humour at the parents’ karaoke sessions (none too different from their South Korean neighbour) and generational anti-Americanism.

A still from A State of Mind. Source:

This film is a highly recommended watch, especially for those who know little of the country’s political landscape. It could be criticised for exoticising North Korean diligence (those hours of back breaking routines!) to a Western audience – after all the Mass Games ceremony is nothing short of magnificent, sentimentalised by the sweet Hyeon-Son and Yeong-Son’s devotion to nation and Kim-dom. The influence of the omnipresent and absent Supreme Leader in question is undoubtedly ego-centric and greatly disturbing. We are left to judge for ourselves on the sincerity of praise for Kim when watching the interviews in this documentary. What is certainly ironic however is that Daniel Gordon was cordially invited by Kim Jong-il to document this highly regarded event in response to the endless criticisms North Korea receives from the Western media. Despite the expected limitations and heavy editing before the final cut, calling this piece A State of Mind – leads you to read between the lines. Although tacit, Gordon has managed to create a strong political statement in this documentary, combined with an intimacy we rarely see of North Korean people.

Here you can watch extracts from the performance of the Mass Games:


4 thoughts on “A very different portrait of North Korea — Film Review: A State of Mind

  1. I don’t think VeryMuchSo have the budget to do soundtrack CDs. But from recollection a lot of the music on the film was Hwang Byungki’s music for Kayageum (Korean zither), probably played by Master Hwang himself. You can find a Western compilation of some of his best known works on iTunes, or if you’re really dedicated there are 5 CDs of his work available from

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