Director Daniel Gordon pulled off the seemingly impossible in 2003 when, after extensive negotiations with the government of the country, himself and a film crew were granted complete and total access to North Korea, a country who remains more closed-off to the outside world than ever. Gordon and the crew arrived in the country with the intent to follow a pair of gymnast schoolgirls as they prepared for the 2003 Mass Games, the largest choreographed performance festival on Earth.
The camera follows 13-year-old Pak Hyon Sun and 11-year-old Kim Song Yun as they prepare daily for their performance, sometimes working themselves to the point of exhaustion. While the focus is on the rehearsal for the Mass Games, the camera often manages to get a larger view of the living conditions and general environment of the country. Everything is done in the service of the worshipped leader, Kim Jong-Il (government radio is broadcast into the home, and while it can be turned down, it cannot be turned off; the one TV channel broadcasts propaganda part of the day), and even the Mass Games performance is meant to symbolize the subordination of the individual to the state.
Although the two girls and their families live in the capital of Pyongyang, life is still difficult. They are rationed a certain amount of food per month. Blackouts happen at some time just about every night (blame is directed at America) and, as we're told in one scene, a girl celebrates her birthday by getting a full bowl of rice, while her siblings get half. The people live in isolation, as it takes a permit for them to travel outside the town in which they live. The country is broken up into three different classes: worker, intellectual, and peasant. While we're told that things are getting better for the people, malnutrition remains a problem and while the living conditions as shown in Pyongyang are problematic, the film informs that Pyongyang offers the best living environment.
To the film's credit, director Daniel Gordon (who also provides narration that's rather low-key, but engaging) doesn't judge his subjects, instead letting the audience draw their own conclusions as he gives a straightforward presentation of what daily life is like for these people living under a strict regime. Overall, I thought Gordon's documentary was informative and interesting, offering remarkable access into a country that has remained secretive throughout the years. The hard work that the two children go through (their gymnastics routines are impressive) as they prepare for the show is remarkable to watch (late in the movie, we find out that leader Kim Jong-Il does not attend the show, which is put on for him) and it's interesting to see their view of growing up in this environment.
VIDEO: "State of Mind" is presented by Kino in approximately 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The presentation is certainly acceptable for what is likely a fairly low-budget documentary feature. Sharpness and detail are not consistent, as some scenes looked crisper than others, but the film never appeared hazy or too soft, even in dimly-lit scenes.
The picture did show some light grain, occasional shimmer and an artifact or two, but these faults were only briefly visible and certainly did not cause much distraction. No edge enhancement was noticed, nor were any instances of specks, marks or other wear on the print. Colors remained natural and accurate, with no smearing or other concerns.
SOUND: The 2.0 audio is perfectly adequate for a documentary presentation. Audio quality is first-rate, with clear dialogue and background/environment sounds. No complaints. The film is subtitled in English, although dialogue is a mixture of some English and mostly Korean.
EXTRAS: A very brief CNN profile on the film (about 7 minutes) and a longer interview with Gordon (10 minutes), where the filmmaker discusses issues like meeting the families, working with the government and other elements, such as the opinions of the North Koreans that Gordon talked to on current events. There's also a photo gallery, as well.
Final Thoughts: For those interested in being able to look deeper into a society often in the headlines, "State of Mind" is an interesting portrait of two teens growing up in a culture that remains largely closed off to the outside world. Kino's DVD edition provides fine audio/video quality and a few decent supplements.