Monday, March 26, 2007

TV REVIEW: North Korea - Crossing The Line


NORTH KOREA - CROSSING THE LINE
BBC4, 22.3.07, 21.00
Pa, what is eternity for? said the little boy. To see a cricket match played through, said Pa, if you believe the sage. Balls. Eternity is what comes between now and a show of North Korean art, anywhere.

If art is the manifest of fantasy, as opposed to the erection of marble monumentalism, then all of North Korean life is art. Korea is famous for introducing Buddhism to Japan, for early printing, for war. Its only artistic endeavours of international renown are those of self-delusion in which art's trickery of the soul is played out without canvas or stage or amplifier. Jim Dresnok, a GI who defected from the south to the north in 1962, is an adept in this art as as Daniel Gordon's excellent and deserving film quietly and forgivingly showed.

Dresnok was one of a handful of grunts who went over the 49th Parallel to the people's paradise that was so paradisiacal they wouldn't share it with anyone.. They kidded themselves that in a place where everyone else kidded themselves or were coerced to, they'd find a place to get along, and for the most part they did. They were caged in gilt, appeared in a feature as dastardly Yankees, were allocated looker wives usually purloined from around the world by Kim Il-sung's lovable intelligence agents). Things were great, they told the world, and by North Korean standards they were; tables groaning with colourful repasts in a famine-beset land, a communism where the deaths of thousands were the result of sins not of commission but of omission (protein, vitamins, tractor wheels). Kids got scholarships to good schools, hobnobbed with cadres and Party toadies. Millions, meanwhile, starved; Dresnok's explanation was the machinations of the US. The flapping of pig wings became deafening.

Daniel Gordon's fine film was crisp, informative, unclich├ęd and uncomplicated, the sort of uncluttered essay in visual discourse that Soviet film makers once wanted to aspire towards when the final victory of the proletariat was achieved. There was adequate testimony to what makes up the Korean peninsula - destruction, race hatred, orphaning, unimaginable discontinuities since Japan's 1910 colonisation that can surely make normal life a concept rather than a reality.

But there was little sentimental and obvious stuff, judgemental neither on commies or capitalist pigs. No grainy Pyongyang agitprop of singing Pioneers and ranked tanks. Dresnok, the last of the defectors still in North Korea, untouched by re-defection or death, is a slightly pathetic butterball of a man, whose frame is almost spherical and nearly fills the meagre matchbox of an apartment the regime ascribes him (the twin Great Leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, are in every shot). For a man who protests so much about the benevolence of North Korea, his consumption of fags and alcohol (three quintuples of what one assumes is the clear spirit soju (40% abv, est., at best) within a few minutes on a fishing trip with mates on the banks of the river in Pyongyang belies a litany of constant contentment. The smell of the little rooms, the staleness of the nicotine, doesn't come over; the footage of Pyongyang only has dilapidation in unfocused background. Dresnok attends a hospital (Pyongyang's best, one surmises), where the doctor, with telling frankness, informs the camera (but not the patient) that unless a change of lifestyle happens soon, the prognosis is bleak.

It is the nearest thing we get to the truth from the mouth of any one human throughout the whole hour; North Korea is a nation based on a primal lie and surviving on lies (much as is its southern neighbour, similarly a creation of an artificial political settlement). Dresnok's reality is similarly invented. He lives out his own duplicate deception of the addict twice over, that he stays in the pink with ciggies and drink. But in the end, the lies conceived by the human mind cannot overcome fundamental scientific truths - apples fall downwards, cars aren't alive, intelligent design is tautologous, Davina McCall must be locked up for the good of humanity, and too much booze and fags will kill you. Posters can lie; the body can't; Dresnok's wheezing, the fact he 'doesn't get out' because of the pains in his chest, tell you all you need to know.

Dresnok speaks Korean (a notoriously difficult language for westerners to master) but speaks plainly like the good ol' boy he still is. He goes bowling. There's little doubt that the life he leads in Pyongyang is a better one than that of a punk south of the Mason-Dixon Line. He may have a shotgun if he had a pick-up to stow it in. His disgust at the conduct of a co-defector, Charles Jenkins, when the latter flees to Japan to be with his wife, a Honshu abductee, who returned there and stayed during an amnesty in the mid-90s, is gruff and rough. 'Son of a bitch'... the presence of three North Korean military personnel, in sweat-soaked serge, might have prompted this, although one doubts it. It's hard to dislike Dresnok's straightforwardness. He believes - he really does. He believes in the Great Leader, as he once believed in Ike, in pinwheel hats for every American, in the efficacy of ducking and covering against nuclear assault.

He was, of course, kidding himself then, sure as he is kidding himself now. But he's happy. Who's complaining? Not me - in the Korean world of mirrors, I am not going to be the one throwing stones around.

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