People

People: Nicholas Bonner and his North Korean films

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Nick Bonner is one of Beijing's most eccentric residents, in all the right ways. He is a painter, cartoonist, landscape artist and filmmaker who has been living in the capital for more than fifteen years.

In the early 1990s, Bonner was playing for the loosely-organized British Embassy football team. One of his fellow players was a Beijing-based North Korean with whom he and another English friend named Josh Green struck up a friendship. This led to Green and Bonner forming Koryo Tours, which specializes in arranging tours to North Korea, in 1993.

Koryo takes foreign tour groups to the Hermit Kingdom several times a year. The groups are closely watched by the authorities, kept away from ordinary North Koreans and prevented from wandering about at will. Nonetheless, as Koryo's history of cooperation with various North Korean organizations deepened, there has been a relaxing of the rules and a willingness to allow the tour groups to go further and further afield. In the course of learning more about North Korea, Bonner stumbled upon a story that he felt had to be told to the outside world: the strange tale of the North Korean soccer team that beat Italy and qualified for the quarter-finals of the 1966 world cup.

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At that time, Britain had no diplomatic ties with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and this nearly prevented the North Korean team from going to the UK to compete in the cup. But when the DPRK team arrived in the northeastern town of Middlesbrough, the local football supporters were captivated by the plucky Koreans and became fanatical supporters, cheering for 'their' side and waving North Korean flags at subsequent matches. Despite the local good will, the North Koreans lost their first game against the USSR. Their next game with Chile ended in a draw. It looked like they would be knocked out of the cup, because their following game was against the Italian side, which is always among the top teams.

But the game against Italy ended in a shock victory for North Korea after a goal by striker Pak Do Ik. The Italians went home to be pelted by tomatoes, while the North Koreans qualified for a quarter-final match against Portugal.

The team is often accused of spending the night before the Portugal game boozing it up and partying with local women. Even if that is true, their performance started out strong. Early in the game, they took a 3-0 lead. But the Portuguese fought back, eventually trouncing the Koreans 5-3.

The North Korean team went home and disappeared from the world sporting stage. No one outside of North Korea knew what happened to the players after their return. Many said that they were sent to labor camps as punishment for their defeat. Italian journalists who tried to contact the team were rebuffed by the North Korean authorities. The story of the first Asian team to draw attention in the World Cup vanished from the news.

In 1997, a TV sports producer named Daniel Gordon contacted Nick Bonner, asking about the football team and whether it would be possible to find them. After a protracted period of discussions with North Korean officials, Bonner was given permission to bring a foreign film crew to North Korea and interview the seven surviving players from the 1966 World Cup Team. With Gordon directing and Bonner as associate producer, a film crew specializing in the DPRK was born.

The North Korean authorities granted Bonner access to their archives of 35mm film and newspapers from the World Cup, materials which no Westerner had ever seen before. Bonner and Gordon also arranged to take the players back to Middlesbrough where they met some of the men who had followed them around as young football supporters, as well as dignitaries from the town's football organizations. The result is a fascinating documentary film called The Game of Their Lives that puts a human face on a member of 'the axis of evil' that is usually in the news because of famines, nuclear standoffs and six party talks.

Completing the film wasn't easy. Most investors have an allergy to the words "North Korea", and with such a quirky subject matter and so many obvious complications, financing was an extraordinary challenge. So Bonner and Gordon leaned on friends for loans, and eventually secured some funding from the BBC. Despite the many bureaucratic and financial obstacles, they succeeded in filming and producing the film.

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Officially released in 2002, the film has achieved cult status amongst football players although it has yet to make any money. However the experience Bonner and Gordon gained making The Game of Their Lives allowed them to put together another North Korean film project: A State of Mind. The film is a portrait of two girls in Pyong Yang as they prepare for their participation in the mass games, the most important sporting and theatrical event in North Korea.

Mass games are held on various state occasions and national holidays and often viewed by supreme leader, Kim Jong Il. The games consist of mass gymnastics and dancing, and usually tell stories of the Korean War and the founding of the DPRK. In addition to the gymnastics and dancing, spectacular metamorphosing murals are created by people in the spectator stands hold up colored cards, that are turned over in a certain sequence to change the image.

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Although there are thousands of participants in the mass games, the competition to become a participant is very tough and it is considered very prestigious. The participants train for months before the event, and are ruthlessly weeded out if they are not up to standard. A State of Mind follows two young gymnasts and their families for over eight months, culminating in a Mass Games performance. Both girls are from relatively well-off families in Pyong Yang: their apartments seem familiar to anyone who has seen 1980s urban housing in China. Bearing that in mind, one of the things that stands out about the film is how normal everyone seems.

Bonner is currently taking A State of Mind to film festivals, and hatching plans for his next film.

- If you would like to visit North Korea, buy DVDs of the films, or purchase North Korean art, visit the links below.

NOTE (2010.03.11): At some point since this article was published, the Games of Their Lives Website (thegamesoftheirlives.com) was taken over by an online casino.

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