Imagine the sight of one-hundred thousand humans executing the world’s most impeccable live performance. This is the Arirang Festival, also known as the Mass Games, dubbed the greatest acrobatic spectacle on earth.
To the haunting chants of Korean folk music, an orgy of color and music explodes on the field. Baton-wielding military jackets parade in honor of the Dear Leader. Tiny gymnasts in blue uniforms uniforms flip and twirl with cautious grace. Tae Kwon Do athletes perform a synchronized series of kicks and punches. In the other half of the stadium seats, 20,000 students manipulate colored flipboards that magically shape-shift into the mythical countryside and the Great Leader in mind-blowing detail. All the while, the haunting tones of “Arirang” echo in the May Day Stadium, telling the story of a Romeo and Juliet tragedy that doubles as an allegory for the separation of North and South Korea.
Ten minutes into the show, rain started pouring into the open stadium. The acrobats, like wind-up dolls, did not miss a beat. This is, of course, the point: The Mass Games are the most extreme articulation of the Confucian selflessness that governs life in the DRPK. Totally integrated and completely indistinguishable, the performers create the gestalt of an experience that cannot—must not—be broken down into its parts. Doing so would confront an individualism that is at odds with the unified state.
Still, performing in the Mass Games is something of a dream job in the DPRK. (I’d take it over the grind at the statistics department.) The kids in the show apparently get a kick out of them, and the audiences enjoy the spectacle. I too was riveted. The Mass Games were, in a word, mesmerizing. And yet I didn’t feel much. It was simply too perfect. At what point does perfection become sterile? Performances that teeter on catastrophe—think of the exquisite acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil or the exhilarating routines of the best stand-up comedy—are the moments that really move us. But under the watchful eyes of the state (or at least the Pyongyang-ers in the stadium), the acrobats don’t flirt with the possibility of disaster. So the Mass Games never truly succeed, because they are never willing to fail.
I looked up the lyrics to “Arirang” (which was later sung as a karaoke duet in the basement of our hotel by an American opera singer and a North Korean guide) and paused at the later verses:
Just as there are many stars in the clear sky,
There are also many dreams in our heart.
There, over there that mountain is Baekdu Mountain,
Where, even in the middle of winter days, flowers bloom.
In standard renditions, those later verses are rarely sung.
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