In recent times, I guess we're all too familiar with the bad press that North Korea is getting, especially in its nuclear weapons programme. One of the last hardlined communist states left in the world, we often wonder what goes on behind that iron curtain, in its reclusive behaviour that have spawned many questions with little forthcoming answers. And documentaries which offer a sneak peek into what goes on behind that veil of secrecy, would also be cast a doubtful eye whether the filmmakers were gagged from painting a more subjective angle.
Naturally, getting permission to shoot within North Korea isn't easy, and Daniel Gordon and his crew spent more than 3 years obtaining that nod, and for the fact that they were allowed unprecedented bandwidth to capture what they needed for their movie (and I guess the good job they did with this, opened another door for their other North Korean documentary titled A State of Mind). For those interested in the landscape of the state beyond the much publicized mass displays and sabre-rattling military parades, this film offers a wonderful montage of life in the country, with plenty of everyday scenes fused into one sequence that was, in my opinion, too short, as it left you wanting more.
But let's get back to the subject matter, and that's the exploration of what happened to the North Korean football team of 1966, who were very much written off by pundits all over despite their hard work at overcoming Australia in the qualifiers, which stemmed very much from a history left unlearned, just like how the Western forces underestimated the drive and will to win of the Imperial Japanese forces in WWII. The filmmakers had tracked down almost all the surviving members of that team of 66, and one just cannot believe that they're hardly the straight-laced, serious folks that one would expect anyone to become after living under a hard regime all their lives.
The film straddles between the present and the past, allowing each man to recount their moment of glory on a world stage. Everyone had a sense of humour, and this shows during their interviews, being extremely free with their words and candid in their responses, quite contrary to what one would expect, with minders probably being close by nodding in approval at what was mentioned, but it's not the case. In many ways, Dan Gordon's film will open up many eyes, that politics aside, they too are human beings with the same hopes and dreams, with experience to share, and the desire to do so with fellow friends, no matter what political system they live under. And you can't help but to chuckle at how confused these guys were when they finally made that leap into democracies during their tour of duty, which on one hand they're pretty focused on their mission, and on the other in awe at the frenzy happening around them.
This film can also be deemed as a football film in a certain sense, since it had archived a slice of qualifying action for that sole Oceania-Africa-Asian spot in the World Cup finals of 16 teams then. The 1966 World Cup will always be remembered for a few things, and for football fans, this film presents and showcases some of those aspects, in a year where England hoisted its only World Cup trophy to date, and on home soil too. For those who are familiar with footballing legends, then this film offered us a glimpse of the 1965 minted European footballer of the year, and top scorer of the tournament in Portugal's Eusebio. You'll also bear witness to how the rules of the sport had evolved, as back then substitutes were not allowed.
But like most sports too, there's always this deep affinity with the underdogs, and the North Korean team, being the representative of Oceania, Africa and Asia, had its work cut out for them. And probably their success in making up for their lack of technical skills with fitness, speed and energy to chase down every ball, though lacking accuracy up front to make it count for something. Their “Chollima” mindset and swelling of pride not to let their fatherland down, that never-say-die attitude, could have also endeared the team to many fans in Britain, especially the Middlesbrough folks who have adopted the team as their own. And the never-ending debate on teamwork versus individual flair cannot be more keenly defined when witnessing how through teamwork the North Koreans have overcome opponents, though thanks to the Portuguese's Eusebio he had single handedly, through conscious body-language., turned the tide in a riveting match that the filmmakers had managed to condense into a tense finish.
The film also tries to insert statements whenever it can on how the role of sports can be used to promote harmony and goodwill, in building bridges and strengthening ties, and cutting through politics and the sore memories of war, between those who were fighting on opposite sides a decade ago. But I guess the true value here is that peek behind the iron curtain, and for footballing fans, an extremely well made documentary that brings a blast from the past in one of the World Cup's defining moments.