Smells like motherland spirit

Centre Forward peeks inside North Korean sports culture

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"Raised in the bosom of the party": Centre Forward's players share a rare moment of glee
PHOTO COURTESY OF KORYO TOURS

cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM When North Korea makes the news, it's usually under unpleasant headlines containing words like "nuclear" and "hostilities." What most Americans know of this secretive country is either drawn from these dire reports or formed via pop culture. Notable are Vice magazine's surprisingly illuminating North Korean travelogue, which "aired" online, and a pair of 2004 films: doc A State of Mind, about two girls training for the country's circus-on-a-terrifying-scale Mass Games, and, of course, Team America: World Police.

For the sum of a few thousand euros, Beijing-based Koryo Tours can book Westerners (except journalists — NO JOURNALISTS ALLOWED!) on trips that include the Mass Games, the DMZ, Baekdu Mountain, and more (act now for the "Kim Il Sung 100th Birthday Ultimate Mega Tour 2012"!) The Koryo website's FAQ ("Will the guides try to brainwash me?") offers quite an education about how controlled access to the country really is — as you might suspect, tourists have to be extremely careful where they point their cameras. Still, a vacation in North Korea would surely be a one-of-a-kind experience.

With that in mind, Koryo is sponsoring a screening of a one-of-a-kind — at least in America — film, Centre Forward, a 1978 curio that was digitally restored in 2010. Directed with limited artistic flair by Pak Chong-Song (according the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' website, "considered one of the DPRK's finest filmmakers"), this 75-minute, black-and-white propaganda piece weaves the tale of Comrade In Son, a gifted but inexperienced soccer player struggling to succeed on a team that recently upgraded its training regime from merely exhausting to sadistically brutal.

Along the way, the lad wearing No. 17 learns important lessons from his sister (a dancer whose training also tends toward the sadistically brutal), his roommate (an older player with international triumphs under his belt), his coach (who gives motivational speeches that invoke the teachings of the Fatherly Leader), and the lyrics of the rousing tunes that play over the film's many montages — "Oh we are sportspersons of the Leader, let us demonstrate wisdom and vigor," that sort of thing. There's never any doubt, because it's emphasized over and over, that sporting glory is owned by the motherland, not individual players. (Though if you fail, you're personally responsible for hindering the DPRK's pursuit of being "a kingdom of sports.")

Centre Forward's original release must've stirred the hearts of North Korean soccer fans who recalled the national team's best-ever World Cup showing; in 1966, it reached the quarter-finals after defeating perennial powerhouse Italy. Contemporary fans might better remember the 2010 World Cup, though they'd probably prefer not to — while even qualifying for the tournament was an accomplishment (and the extreme underdogs did score a goal in their game against Brazil), the team exited after three losses, including a humiliating 0-7 defeat versus Portugal.

The media, of course, feasted on the oddities the outsider country brought to the World Cup stage: the identically-dressed fans that were alleged to be Chinese actors imported to South Africa for the occasion; the assertion that the North Korean coach was getting pitch-side advice from Kim Jong-il via an invisible phone invented by the Supreme Leader himself. We chuckled, sure. But who didn't worry a bit when the team had to trudge back to Pyongyang, still stinging from having their asses handed to them on international television by Cristiano Ronaldo and company?

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