Photos courtesy of Koryo Tours/Very Muchso Productions
“It’s by far the most extraordinary performance I’ve ever seen,” agrees sister Wol-san, “but I don’t think of the Mass Games as something that should be advertised like a Broadway musical.” It’s an understatement to say there’s a bit more to it than that, and in more ways than one.
In a stadium in Pyongyang, 80,000 gymnasts in color-coordinated outfits take the field and begin dancing, jumping, and tumbling in a synchronicity the likes of which you’ve never seen. Their bodies move to form fiendishly complicated patterns ranging from blooming flowers to intersecting geometric shapes that expand, collapse, and flow into each other, and every last gymnast moves in perfect time with the group. There are no missed steps, no awkward lags, no slow individuals who are off by a beat, no unseemly breaks to distract your eye from the patterns of perfection. The coordination is astonishing.
“Busby Berkeley on acid could never have dreamt of achieving such an elaborate, perfectly-executed performance,” says Nick Bonner, producer of A State of Mind, an eye-opening documentary on the Mass Games and one of the only non-North-Korean films to be shot within the reclusive state. “The numbers involved [in the performances] are staggering.”
And that’s just the floor show. In addition to the gymnastics is an equally overwhelming spectacle behind them, taking up one half of the stadium’s seats: What North Koreans refer to as “the Largest Picture in the World,” an enormous high-resolution image roughly two football fields in length. The image ripples and changes constantly. What is fascinating is that each “pixel” of the image is in fact a schoolchild.
“[The Largest Picture in the World] is made up of 10,000 students, each holding up a book whose pages link with their neighbors’ to make up a gigantic mosaic image,” explains Bonner. “When the students turn the pages, the scene or individual elements of the scene change.” Each book contains approximately 170 different flashcards, and the children are signaled to turn the pages by semaphore.
For any given event in the Olympics, only one person will go home with the gold medal. With a Mass Games performance, all 80,000 performers will go home knowing they’ve achieved success.
Surprisingly, there are a handful of Westerners who have actually witnessed the Mass Games with their own eyes. Some are travelers who gained entry to North Korea through Bonner’s own Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based travel company specializing in North Korea. Others have made the trip through Korean-American activist organizations. A concerted web search will turn up a handful of blog entries by these eyewitnesses, and while all seem awed by the what and the how, not everyone seems to understand the why of the Mass Games. For those raised in the Western world who have viewed the Games without any explanatory context, the purpose of the Games is easy to miss, or misunderstand.
For example, one might find it tragic that the thousands of schoolchildren behind the Largest Image, who have drilled incessantly to achieve a smoothness of synchronicity, work so hard to produce a beautiful image that they cannot even see, as they are behind it. But the synchronicity and self-sacrifice are not for the sake of spectacle.
The Western world is all about individualism, largely exemplified by America, the most extreme proponent of the ideology of a lone man or pioneer toiling hard to earn singular success. In performance, this translates into international events like the Olympics or the Western world’s manifold professional sports leagues. And even in team sports, audiences are dazzled and thrilled by individual performers like Kobe Bryant, David Beckham, and Albert Pujols.
But it’s one thing to be amazed at what one person can do, and quite another to be in awe of what 80,000 can do.
The Eastern world has always been about the group, with the dominant Confucian societies shunning individual preferences in the interests of the masses. This can make socialism, on paper at least, seem like an almost perfect fit.
North Korea’s socialist beliefs are perfectly represented in the Mass Games, where thousands upon thousands of performers spend months and years practicing, not in the hopes of outdoing one another, but in the hopes of achieving perfect unity. It is a grandiose and somewhat stunning example of a political ideology encapsulated in the form of athletic performance. The audience of thousands chanting “man se, man se” (Korean for “hooray”) are not cheering for any one individual or any one performance set; they are cheering for everyone on the field, everyone in the stadium, and everyone in North (and, it might be argued, South) Korea.
In a socialist state the rewards are supposed to be evenly distributed, and so it goes in the Mass Games. For any given event in the Olympics, only one person will go home with the gold medal. With a Mass Games performance, all 80,000 performers will go home knowing they’ve achieved success.
In a 1987 speech to the Mass Games organizers, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il reportedly said, “Mass gymnastics play an important role in training schoolchildren to acquire communist qualities. Mass gymnastics foster particularly healthy and strong physiques, a high degree of organization, discipline, and collectivism in schoolchildren.”
“It would be facile to dismiss this work as Stalinist propaganda, or Orwellian kitsch,” writes J. Scott Burgeson, author of Korea Bug, a compilation of interviews with Koreans ranging from street people to celebrities. “[The Mass Games] really is a case in which the sum is greater than its parts, a triumph of human creativity that on a purely aesthetic level trumps all political or ideological underpinnings.”
A State of Mind, the documentary Bonner produced with director Daniel Gordon, does an excellent job of displaying the aesthetics of the Games alongside its ideology. The film crew was granted unparalleled access to North Korea, and given permission to film the daily lives and families of two schoolgirls training for the Mass Games.
The documentary contains multiple surprises, not all of which we’ll spoil here. Perhaps most arresting is how ordinary, reasonable, and relatable these North Korean citizens seem. One of the teenage subjects recounts lying to her parents about going to practice; and in a moment of unflinching and familiar domestic honesty, the mother confides things to the camera she hasn’t even told her husband, with a shy smile of mischief.
“I think the proudest achievement for us all was that the film has been screened in both North and South Korea,” says Bonner. “Perhaps the greatest criticism we had was from the North Koreans, who found that the film was rather boring in following the normal life of two families; this reinforced to us that we had had genuine access and commentary from an average family… I realize this is against many people’s impressions, but in the context of the films we have made in North Korea, we have come across nothing but normal and rational people.”
Like the documentary, the Mass Games themselves are about turning assumptions on their heads. In the West, where Super Bowl halftime games or the opening ceremonies of the Olympics are perhaps the largest coordinated performances most have seen, the Mass Games are a visual shock. One shock is the sheer number of performers—we’re talking 80,000 people—and another is the actual choreography, which is as aesthetically stunning as it must be fiendishly complicated to coordinate.
“I had actually been expecting a touristy type of thing, but [the Games are] the most artistic collective project I have ever seen,” says Wol-san.
A Mass Games performance can run from 90 minutes to two hours, consisting of a dozen different sets, with no intermission in between; one group of performers flows off the field while the next flows onto it, seamlessly. One of the sets witnessed by the Liems depicted a dramatic physical representation of the separation of the peninsula, all constructed from human bodies. (It is worth noting that there are no markers or indicators on the field; a mass of people run into the center and magically assemble into the perfect outline of Korea—including Cheju Island.) Against a backdrop of operatic music, the northern and southern halves of the peninsula are inexorably rent asunder; aching arms are outstretched in futility as unseen forces pull the two halves apart.
“It made me cry,” says Yul-san. “The guys were crying. Everyone around me was crying.”
The artistry and choreography is accomplished by a reported 300 specialists who work in the DPRK’s Creative Group for Mass Games, after having majored in Mass Games at one of the country’s universities. The Creative Group is headed by one Kim Jong Ho, the Mass Games Organizer, who is briefly interviewed on A State of Mind. Again there is a surprise: where one might expect the man in charge of such an operation to be a big-shot in a grandiose party get-up, instead we see your average bespectacled ajushii sitting at a desk in his office, his grey suit slightly rumpled after a day of work. The only clue alluding to what one supposes must be a complicated job is the fact that there are four telephones on his desk.
Mass Games date back to at least the 19th century, having been practiced by Czech nationalists (although utilizing gymnastics and dancing to instill discipline goes all the way back to Sparta, founded in the 10th century B.C.). Communist nations like Romania developed the tradition in the 20th century, finding it an excellent and demonstrative way of expressing and reinforcing their ideology. Kim Il Sung reportedly developed a variant known as Flower Gymnastics as early as the 1930s. North Korea has been holding its organized Mass Games regularly since 1946 and is one of the last countries in the world to do so.
It is often said that only North Korea could stage Mass Games like these. “[In other countries] there is simply no way of harnessing this amount of manpower for such a long period, plus the skill and talent is not available on such a scale,” Bonner explains. Students drill for hours each day starting at the age of nine, and practice for full days in the summertime. A reported 200 million man-hours went into the 2003 performance depicted in A State of Mind.
“[The Games are] a truly monumental production that is equaled nowhere else on the face of the planet today,” writes Burgeson.
“I am not being blasé when I say that if there is one performance that will remain firmly in your mind when you reach a ripe old age, then this will be it,” says Bonner.
As Theme went to press, word arrived that this year’s Mass Games would be canceled. Reasons given range from flooding to politics. As to who or what geopolitical forces are actually behind the cancellation, Theme leaves it up to other publications to interpret. But one thing is for certain; the thought of thousands of schoolchildren holding up an image they can’t see is not as tragic as the fact that, after drilling to do it for all those hours, this year they will not get to perform it at all.
Special thanks to:
Nicholas Bonner, Koryo Tours
J. Scott Burgeson, author of Korea Bug (Eunhaeng Namu, 2005)
Yul-san and Wol-san Liem
The documentary A State of Mind is available at: