Wow, just wow. The sheer balls of this documentary. Shane Smith and his unseen buddy cameraman Jamie back-doored themselves into North Korea with point-and-shoot cameras, and proceeded to make a very jaw-dropping, ballsy documentary / travelogue that culminates with the Mass Games. The Arirang Festival: 120,000 people in a choreographed show which Smith explains is
The only reason tourists are allowed into North Korea.
As official tourists, Shane and Jamie are assigned guards who frequently admonish them not to film and threaten them with jail. Despite that–and at one point having their camera memory card confiscated–the daring duo compile a look at what Smith calls “The land that time forgot.”
The tour begins with a banquet where Smith and Jamie, (Vice, VBS.tv), are the only guests. Course after course of food is laid at every table setting, and then removed, Smith speculates, it is in order to prove that the country does not have a famine. The next morning, they travel to a tea house in the mountains where a lone maiden in traditional garb waits for visitors to buy refreshments and play pool.
Part of the
tour of boredom and propaganda
involves demonstrating how America and the imperialist West are inferior to North Korea, and that North Korea is the greatest, most brilliant country in the world, thanks to the courage and vision of Kim il Sung and his son Kim Jong il. They visit the captured U.S.S. Pueblo and the International Friendship Exhibition, a vast storehouse deep in the side of a mountain where gifts to Dear Leader from around the world are warehoused. Vintage luxury automobiles, portraits, and gemstone encrusted baubles rest next to a kitchy taxidermy alligator holding a wooden tray and glasses, grotesque porcelain figurines, tacky clocks, and ivory sculptures. It is a place of pilgrimage for North Koreans who wear their best clothes and uniforms to see how beloved Dear Leader is “revered and loved” by the rest of the world.
Another day trip takes Smith and Jamie to the Barrage, a huge hydroelectric dam and power plant called by North Korean propagandists a stunning achievement in technology, but which actually is responsible for the massive floods which have destroyed most of the country’s arable land.
Vice shows us a country isolated from much of the world, always putting their best foot forward, driven by group-think and a cult of personality. Where the best and brightest children are put into special schools where they work only on their skill–needlepoint, music or dance– in order to create greater glories for the State and Dear Leader who loves his spectacle.
And what a spectacle the Mass Games makes as the 120, 000 people flip cards, dance, and twirl batons, playing out in massive pantomime the story of the Korean Revolution as they know it. This wide-eyed incredulous documentary, inter-cut with a Korean propaganda film, is a stunning one-of-a-kind look at a North Korea as it was under Kim Jong il; and we wait now to see what changes his son Kim Jong-un will make.