North Korea scores with fascinating football film

By Michael Rank

North Korean films are as hard to find as kimchi-flavoured ice cream, so Koryo Tours have done us a big favour by releasing on DVD Centre Forward (film trailer here), a highly watchable and fascinating Pyongyang production from 1978.

It’s the tale of talented novice footballer Cha In-son (Kim Chol), who’s been on the bench for Taesongsan for the last three years, but finally makes the team. Not everything goes well at first, and he’s forced to leave the field injured in his first match. But he sticks at it, and strongly supports the coach’s tough new training regime, unlike his complacent best friend and teammate, Chol-gyu, who thinks it’s unnecessary for such a successful team. Chol-gyu (Choi Chang-su) tries to distract him with drinking sessions, but In-son will have none of this, and eventually everyone’s won over to the coach’s demanding regime and Taesongsan ultimately win the North Korean equivalent of the Premiership.

The film, co-directed by Pak Chang-song and Kim Kil-in, is well paced (and only 70 minutes long) and the black and white camerawork is fluent and confident.

There’s a strong political message, inevitably. “Oh, we are the sports soldiers of the leader/ Let us glorify the honour of the motherland…,” goes the splendidly rousing theme song, and to underline the point, the coach reminds In-son, “The Fatherly Leader taught us that we should train harder to win every single game and we should turn our country into a great sporting nation. But we’re still not sweating enough, that’s why our football isn’t getting any better and we’re failing to achieve the teachings of the Fatherly Leader who taught us to make the country a kingdom of sport.”

On a less overtly political level the role of the women in the film is fascinating. In-son doesn’t seem to have a girlfriend, and the love interest, as it were, is provided by his pretty sister,  Myong-suk. She is the star member of a dance troupe and her hard work and dedication is an inspiration for her brother, while she is just as devoted to him, going off to talk to the coach about his prospects when he is feeling despondent. And she takes time off from her dancing duties to iron her brother’s clothes, while his mother washes them for him as he rests, exhausted.

There’s some wry comedy in the relationship between In-son’s mother and best friend Chol-gyu’s grandmother. After her grandson’s string of successes on the pitch, she feels right at home in the world of football and knows all the jargon, and she’s apt to be a bit condescending to In-son’s mum to whom she has to explain terms like “left back” and “having an off day”.

There’s a bit of melodrama when In-son is concussed during a match – don’t worry, he makes a miraculous recovery – and his mother who is watching the game on television wants to rush to the stadium to be with her son. But then she realises she can’t face seeing In-son apparently seriously injured, and Chol-gyu’s granny tells her, “You’re not ready to be a footballer’s mother yet.”

Interestingly, neither In-son or his friend seem to have fathers, and this emphasis on mother figures seems to underline what Brian Myers says in his excellent book The Cleanest Race (Order here) about the roles of mothers and motherliness in North Korean politics and society.

This is the perfect film to see ahead of the World Cup in South Africa next month, in which North Korea have qualified for only the second time ever. Not for nothing has Centre Forward been hailed as “the best North Korean-themed football movie of all time” and there’s no doubt that the Choson Art Film Studio is a truly worthy winner of the Kim Il-sung medal and the National medal, first class.

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