Movie Review
A State of Mind


Director: Daniel Gordon
Cast: Kim Jong-Il

ecently I was queuing at a cafeteria with a friend of mine who took objection to my choice of beverage: ‘Coke? You’re getting coke?’ she said, disdainfully. ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I guess I’ve always had a bit of a thing for coke.’ Then a sort of pause before I added (rather wittily if I don’t say so myself) ‘Kind of like how North Koreans have a thing for communism.’ That got a laugh. Of course, what my friend didn’t know was that I’d seen A State of Mind in the days previous, a documentary that, at its best, serves to remind a largely oblivious Westerner like me how deeply embedded with an enterprising state’s values our own lifestyles have become.

In A State of Mind we observe how the North Korean state decides for itself where its citizen’s aptitudes lie, positioning families appropriately into one of three social classes: worker, intellectual, or peasant class. There are unnerving resemblances here to the West; such as to our education system, with the exponential segregation of the trades, humanities, sciences, et cetera – or to the shift by most near-ubiquitous megacorps (ever flourishing under a steady rain of government subsidy) to web-based recruiting only, wherein applicants are offered only the positions that online aptitude tests dictate they’re best fitted to. For the common benefit, naturally.

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What’s most chilling in A State of Mind is the smiling propagandized faces of the two gymnast girls who yearn for nothing more than to perform for their Great Emperor Kim Jong Il, wholly believing, under the interminable quasi-truth of state curriculum that he is perfectly benign and reigns over them with great wisdom – not dissimilar to the way we as Westerners believe (or at least simulate) less precise notions of alert authorities watching over us, whom we can happily assign the right to control our lives; the propaganda of free enterprise and big media. Then when you see the interviews of members from two North Korean families (one from the intellectual class, the other worker’s class) and observe their candid and (despite everything) rounded natures, it’s easy to wonder how better off we indeed are. At least they’re not pretending to be a democracy.

In these ways, A State of Mind is a reflective surface, as Daniel Gordon its director is surely more than aware. In the press release Gordon relates this little aside: ‘We’d talk very frankly and openly with our Korean guides. They asked what the latest thing on TV over here is. We would describe something like Temptation Island and they’d look at us and say, “What has happened to your society?”’.

A scene from the new workout video, "Great and Glorious Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il's 30-Minute Ab-Crunches..."

Of course Gordon, who previously directed The Game of Their Lives (with its focus on North Korea’s 1966 win over Italy in the World Cup), and is now allowed unprecedented access into the family home, knows he’s onto a rare thing and doesn’t want to tread on any collective toes. As a result, parts of A State of Mind feel standoffish, its narration glacial and stolidly omnipresent.

But the film is no whitewash. A State of Mind is best at quietly watching – which it does a lot. It watches a military official in the audience at the Mass Games sneaking a look at his watch, or a family sitting around the dinner table blaming a sudden power failure on ‘those American Imperialists’, a scene that feels uncannily like farce. It’s not though, and nobody at the table is blinking an eyelid. But then neither do we, as we glue ourselves to Temptation Island from week to week, utterly oblivious to how farcical it might seem to a North Korean.

By: Kris Allison
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