Each ‘pixel’ in the background is a child flicking over single-colour pages in large books, all directed by one man with flags and large illuminated numbers, just tucked out of sight © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com
Almost every year, Pyongyang hosts what has been rightly called the most incredible show on earth, when around 100,000 artists, dancers, gymnasts, acrobats, martial arts experts, soldiers and children perform in the Mass Games. Combining scenes of ethnic dances, giddying acrobatics and folk songs, it’s a ‘compact’ story of the DPRK, celebrating everything from the success of egg farms to the struggle against US imperialism, performed by thousands of participants in a stunning feat of choreography, not only in the precision of the dances but in how they all manage to evaporate off the stage in total darkness.
Combining scenes of ethnic dances, giddying acrobatics and folk songs, it’s a ‘compact’ story of the DPRK.
The DPRK’s big games have been held since the 1950s, with thousands of participants in shows ranging in theme from Chongjin’s nationalist ‘Glorious Homeland’ in 1962, to Nampo’s provincial ‘Flowering South Phyongan Province under the Benevolent Sun’ in 1973, or the politically inspired ‘The Ever Victorious Workers’ Party’ in Pyongyang in 2000. Since the 1970s all games have come under the aegis of a single production company, The Mass Gymnastics Production Company, which straplines itself as ‘the Centre of Fantastic Creations’, and has also worked on international shows in China, Angola, Namibia and Nigeria.
‘The key to putting mass gymnastics on a mass basis is the school,’ according to the FLPH book, Mass Games. Primary and middle school children are taught in drills and gymnastic movements in sometimes gruelling after-school and weekend sessions at schools and schoolchildren’s palaces across the country over months. Individual school units are trained in particular scene segments, with units progressively combined and harmonised before final rehearsals. The huge backdrop of images comprises 20,000 coloured cards turned over by as many 13 to 15 year olds. In the pre-show warm-up, the columns of words turned over by the children display the names of the different districts from which they come.
Indeed the slightest mistake anywhere could ruin that scene, and avoiding that, or making the individual surrender to the discipline of the collective, is central to perfecting the show over months of preparations.
Each ‘pixel’ is a child flicking over single-colour pages in large books, all directed by one man with flags and large illuminated numbers, just tucked out of sight. The larger the backdrop area (ie: the venue seating), the more ‘pixels’ can be used and the more sophisticated the image, and pixel books have grown from ten pages in 1955 to 170 in 2000 as more themes are covered in lengthier games and the venues have increased in size, while images now include movement, spotlights, lasers and fireworks. Hence, ‘the slightest blunder will end up in making mess in the synchronisation in the rapid change of backdrops’.
Indeed the slightest mistake anywhere could ruin that scene, and avoiding that, or making the individual surrender to the discipline of the collective, is central to perfecting the show over months of preparations. The youth-oriented nature of the games comes from the Sokol movement of the Czech region in the 1860s, which sought to harness and direct youth by promoting physical and intellectual vigour through mass gymnastics.
This spread across Slavic eastern Europe and Russia and was ready-made for take-up by the socialist regimes that ultimately swept those regions, replacing the more nationalist themes with the kind of socialism and internationalism that led Sokol’s ideas to reach the DPRK, and which is now supplanting socialism for Korean nationalism in a ‘form of mass physical culture which is combined with physical skills and ideological and artistic value’.
The show story depicts Korea’s bitter resistance against Japanese colonialism, the Korean War, division, prosperity and the joy and power of its prospective unification.
Since 2002 the DPRK’s main theme has been ‘Arirang’, a traditional Korean folk song with many variations, but the games’ version is of young lovers split up by a wicked landlord’s machinations, which very simply put is used as a metaphor for Korea’s beauty, the sorrow of its division and hope for its reunification. The show story depicts Korea’s bitter resistance against Japanese colonialism, the Korean War, division, prosperity and the joy and power of its prospective unification.
The exact line-up changes annually, sometimes in a season, but the most important symbols range from the golden sun that symbolises Kim Il Sung; the flags of the country, Korea Workers’ Party and Korea People’s Army; the two pistols given to Kim Il Sung by his father to fight the Japanese; the Dear Leader depicted by the Kimjongilia flower; the Leaders’ birthplaces at Mangyongdae and Mount Paektu, the latter being Korea’s spiritual hearth; obvious military displays; and the flaming torch of Juche.
Almost every year, Pyongyang hosts the Mass Games, which have been rightly called the most incredible show on earth © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com
Tae kwon do exemplifies the ferocity of Korea’s sovereignty. Political and economic achievements are shown by workers around a computer terminal or molten metal pouring forth from a mill, agricultural achievements have hundreds of chicken eggs running around or huge pigs suddenly giving birth to fleets of piglets. Children loom large.
More transitory political themes may include the winged horse of the Chollima movement that has set alight the economy since the 1960s, while cars ascending a snowy mountain road at night depict the Arduous March of the 1990s. A rainbow extending from Pyongyang to the Forbidden City and then the Kremlin underscores old ties and new relations with China and Russia. Then there are more time-sensitive events, like 65 years since the founding of the DPRK, Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday, or the 2013 satellite launch.
With at least one in 100 Koreans involved in the show, from performing to making costumes, it’s truly a national event. As such it’s put on at great expense and some risk, hence it is not a rigidly annual event, although 2014 was the first year in a while to have no games. In 2006 and 2007 the games were disrupted and cancelled due to floods in parts of the country, and there are always rumours of this year’s being the last.
So seeing the games, while it incurs an extra cost, is very much worth it. Seats cost €50 third class, €100 second class, €150 first class or €300 VIP (first class are best). Go – and when you’re there, it’s arguably better to take in the spectacle than see it all through a viewfinder. Filming for longer than five minutes is prohibited and they’ll ask you to stop. Finally, at the end, first-class sitters need to leave quickly as the rows of Koreans behind can’t leave until you do.