During my recent visit to South Africa, I had the opportunity to chat with the British film director Daniel Gordon following a showing of his award-winning documentary on the 1966 North Korea World Cup squad, The Game of Their Lives, at The Bioscope independent cinema in downtown Johannesburg. In a special Football Japan Minutecast recorded the day before the first semi-final of this year’s World Cup, Gordon spoke about the North Korean footballers’ perceptions of their country and the rest of Asia, as well as his own upcoming feature on the 2010 final at Soccer City.
In The Game of Their Lives, there is a scene where Pak Doo-Ik and his 1966 teammates stand in front of the famous statue of Kim Il-Sung, and recall how the Great Leader told them to win one or two matches ‘as representatives of the African and Asian region’. During your time in North Korea, did these players ever talk about other Asian nations like Korea as a whole, China, or Japan?
They’ve talked about it conceptually, because they haven’t had much experience. Some of them seemed to go to Malaysia and Thailand a lot in terms of playing. They also went to India, and obviously a few of them played in Cuba. In terms of their knowledge of the outside world, it’s very, very limited. In A State of Mind, when we asked the girls about America as well, it was like “what’s America?” – America is a concept and they can’t point to it on the map. One of them had a globe on the desk, but this was just a pretty thing that they had bought at the market.
In terms of the Japanese-born North Koreans, they grow up in North Korean schools where they learn about how amazing the Great Leader is. All three of our films (on North Korea) have been bought by a Japanese distribution company for a lot of money, and they never, ever released Crossing the Line because it’s way too touchy for a Japanese subject. They released The Game of Their Lives in the cinema, and were bombarded with threats about a boycott of their cinemas. They couldn’t do that for A State of Mind, so they sold it to a Japanese broadcaster and let them take the flak. But this company is run by a North Korean Japanese, and that’s where his problem is, because he’s really mindful of the fact that any negative thing screws his business.
When he saw Crossing the Line – which is about four American soldiers who defected to North Korea in the 1960s, and then starred in North Korean propaganda films as the evil Americans – he said “I grew up watching those films; I love those films!” It’s the worst bit of propaganda filming that you could ever see – the acting is really hammy. He just said that when you grow up in a North Korean school, even though you’re in Japan, you’re part of that. I’ve seen the North Korean Japanese when they effectively come on their pilgrimages. They obviously look very different to everyone else, but you can also imagine that when they’re back in Japan, they’d look very different to other Japanese.
This year’s North Korea squad contained two Zainichi Koreans – Jong Tae-Se and An Yong-Hak – who had been born and spent most of their lives in Japan. Jong Tae-Se in particular is a fascinating character – he grew up in one of these schools and is very patriotic towards North Korea, but then at the same time, he listens to Japanese music, drives a hummer, and plays silly games in crazy Japanese TV shows with his teammates.
He’s now known as the one who cried uncontrollably in the national anthems during the World Cup. Born in Japan, grew up in Japan, but within the North Korean system.
A friend once asked him if he would live in North Korea, given the chance. Jong Tae-Se simply mumbled “well...” – he has all the trappings of modern life in Japan, so it’s such a conflict.
I’ve known North Korean diplomats who have been based in Beijing, and they’re the same. There, it’s not so much the trappings of wealth or freedom, because they’re not really free. But it’s just that they’ve got slightly more freedom. Also, with the players and other North Koreans who have come over (to the UK) – at the end of the day, for them, North Korea is home. Even a defector to whom I showed pictures of Pyongyang – he hates the system, he hates the government, and he escaped from it. But it makes him tearful when he sees pictures of Pyongyang and we can talk about the same streets, the same bars. He gets tearful because that’s his home.
Moving on to the film in South Africa, this will be just about the day of the final?
Yes. There will be build-up as well, although definitely not going back to the semis or other previous matches. There are all the preparations that go on at the stadium – I’m trying to find good local characters. We have now finally found some of the construction workers that were given final tickets in return for their work.
It’s a behind-the-scenes on the day of the final, but because we don’t know the teams in advance, we don’t know the level of access we’ll get to them. We have requested bigwig FIFA people to give us interviews and take us through what it means. We think we have got (Archbishop Desmond) Tutu as an interviewee, and there are some other characters who are very South African or very African who we would like to follow on the day of the final. There’s something that may or may not happen with (former President Nelson) Mandela which, again, we’re never going to know until two minutes before it happens. There’s lots of little ideas – we’ve got access to the referees so then we can tell their story on the day of the final, which would be great.
How about a Sepp Blatter story?
* Jong Tae-Se left Kawasaki Frontale of the J-League to join 2. Bundesliga side VfL Bochum four days after this podcast was recorded.
Many thanks to Darryl Els and Russell Grant of The Bioscope for organising this opportunity.