The West has so successfully demonized North Korea in recent years that the notion of normal teenage girls living normal teenage lives in the capital city of Pyongyang comes as a shock. Only when the shock wears off do you begin to see at what cost that normality is maintained.
''A State of Mind" is the British documentarian Daniel Gordon's second film about the country he calls the ''least visited, least known, least understood" on the planet, and it's a quietly wrenching eye-opener. The rare Western filmmaker allowed north of the 38th Parallel, Gordon focused on athletic achievement in 2002's ''The Game of Their Lives," about the 1966 North Korean World Cup team. Here he uses athletic achievement to make striking and subtle points about daily life in a paranoid dictatorship. Take your teenagers.
Each year the city hosts the Mass Games, a sort of epic three-day pageant of gymnastics, music, and placard flipping that suggests what Busby Berkeley might have come up with if he'd been hired to choreograph the Nuremberg Rally. ''A State of Mind" zooms in on two young girls practicing for the 2003 Games, but it quickly ducks under that thematic wire to offer fuller portraits of their lives and families.
At 13, Pak Hyon Sun has a bit of the rebel to her -- she drolly confesses to playing hooky from the required two-hour Games drills until she was busted, and she carps about having to learn a particularly tough routine. Kim Song Yun groans about having to wake up for school like any other 11-year-old. This is about as defiant as they get, because everyone in ''A State of Mind" -- kids, parents, grandparents, teachers -- lives in ideological thrall to the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, and to the memory of his late father, Kim Il Sung.
There is no resistance; there is, instead, a complete and almost touchingly childlike faith in the divinity of ''the General" and, by extension, the evil of his enemies, America chief among them. (The film points out that this has been so ever since the devastating US bombing of the North during the Korean War.) If you want to know what a successful state cult of personality looks like, here it is.
The director never pounds the point home, though, and he doesn't have to. He mostly observes this society at work, occasionally dropping patient narrative points about the Games' usefulness in subordinating individual will to the needs of the group. The film makes clear that those living in the capital are better off than the peasants in the country, and it shows that ''better off" is a relative term. The Paks and the Kims are from different classes -- the former are blue-collar, the latter academic intellectuals -- but their living quarters are similarly cramped high-rise apartments, with grandparents and siblings sleeping on floors. Each person is allotted one chicken and five eggs per month.
And these are the good times. ''A State of Mind" lets the older generation talk candidly of the ''Arduous March," the period after Kim Il Sung's 1994 death during which the country fell into a famine whose scope has never been fully calculated. Outside commentators have blamed North Korea's outmoded agricultural policies; the Paks and the Kims blame America, as they do for everything, including the nightly electrical blackouts. But you might, too, if you had a state-installed radio in your kitchen that could be turned down but never off.
A co-production of the BBC, French public TV, and New York's WNET, ''A State of Mind" slightly overstays its welcome, and its use of Beth Orton-style techno-folk under the Mass Games routines is an odd if catchy creative choice (what's wrong with hearing the music the girls actually performed to?). That said, the film's most remarkable aspect is its depiction of casually loving family relations and giggling girlishness -- proof of the resilience of smaller human freedoms in the face of almost constant mind control.
The girls, of course, consider Kim Jong Il their spiritual father. Song Yun goes so far as to say, ''Other kids get to play in the bright sunlight, but we train to perform in front of our dear General." When the Games finally arrive -- and they are an epic display of state kitsch -- the two wait in vain for Kim himself to attend one of the shows. He never does, but the notion of a Kafkaesque void at the top is lost on the subjects. ''A State of Mind" implicitly insists we can only truly understand what we can see for ourselves, and that goes for the West's view of North Korea as well as the girls' view of their dictator.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.