Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Another plug - the Koryo boys

You might have noticed over in the sidebar there (you might have noticed if you were very observant) that, as well as putting up a link for my friend Sarah Cooper's life coaching website, I've got one for Koryo Tours.

These are the guys that I went to Pyongyang with a couple of years ago. (It was a great, great little holiday, and I'd really like to go again sometime.)

The company founder, Nick Bonner, set it up a dozen or more years ago, having made friends with some North Korean students through his football playing here in Beijing. They helped him arrange a mini-tour for himself and a few friends; and it soon grew into a nice little business. Indeed, it has now grown so much that he has had to enlist the help of fellow Brits Simon Cockerell and Hannah Barraclough to help him keep on top of things.

Nick has become an ardent and very knowledgeable Korea-phile. He's an enthusiastic collector of the DPRK's propaganda art - a hobby which he has managed to spin into another arm of his business: see www.pyongyangartstudio.com.

He has also become a documentary film-maker. His first film, The Game of their Lives, told the amazing story of the North Korean football team which achieved fairytale success in the 1966 World Cup in England (eliminating Italy, and taking an early 3-0 lead against Portugal, one of the tournament favourites.... although, alas, the wheels then came off, and Portugal's phenomenal striker Eusebio ensured that his team would go on to meet England in the semi-final). Nick managed to reunite the surviving members of the team and fly them back to England to relive some of their memories. It is one of the most charming and moving films about sport I've ever seen; and quite accessible, I think, even if you have no feeling for the game of football at all.

He followed that up a few years later with A State of Mind, which follows two young schoolgirls through the arduous training regime required of participants in the Arrirang 'Mass Games' performance that is staged on certain key national holidays (a colossal spectacle of synchronized marching, dancing, and gymnastics, involving tens of thousands of performers). This film shows much more of life in Pyongyang today (and a brief glimpse of the much poorer countryside as well), including many disturbing examples of how thoroughgoing the state propaganda and indoctrination is. There are moments of great warmth and humour, as well, though. I particularly love the bit where the family dinnertime of one of the girls is suddenly plunged into darkness by one of Pyongyang's still frequent powercuts, and her wizened grandfather mutters bitterly, "Bloody Americans! It's all their fault!"

The latest film venture is Crossing The Line, about two American soldiers who ran away from their posts in South Korea back in the '60s and 'defected' to the North. I haven't seen this one yet (I was disappointed to have to miss the Beijing premiere screenings while I was on holiday last month), but it was apparently very well-received at the Sundance Festival this year..... and will no doubt be coming to an arthouse cinema (or minority TV channel) near you shortly. Watch out for it.

And Koryo Tours are definitely the best people to go and visit North Korea with, if that should ever take your fancy. I do highly recommend it.

No comments: