On rare occasions, the North Korean government has granted European filmmakers permission to film inside The Hermit Kingdom, and the results are almost always fascinating. In Austria’s Hana, dul, sed, a new documentary screening at Pacific Film Archive this coming Thursday at 7:00 pm as part of the ongoing San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, four members of the North Korean women’s national soccer team get the up close and personal treatment—but their country’s pariah status informs and colors almost every frame of the film.

The team members are clearly among the elite of North Korean society, and seem devoted to the memory of Dear Leader Kim il-Sung and to the current leadership of Great General Kim Jong-il. In sharp contrast, however, with much of what we read about life in the Democratic People’s Republic, these women are well nourished, smartly dressed, and live in comfortable apartments. One of the athletes admits that they received extra rations during the ‘arduous march’ of the mid-1990s, a period of famine in which millions died.

As the film progresses, however, it’s hard not to wonder whether we’re seeing things as they are, or seeing things as the North Korean government wishes us to think they are. Perhaps our conceptions of life in North Korea are wildly inaccurate — or perhaps we’re being manipulated to believe that the lives of the nation’s urban upper crust are somehow more typical, more representative, than the lives of its rural poor. Perhaps the state really does provide free childcare for all, but why are the boulevards of Pyongyang so broad, yet the traffic so minimal? In short, how much of what we see was orchestrated for director Brigitte Weich’s cameras?

Hana, dul, sed cannot, of course, answer these questions: Weich’s intent was simply to make a film about soccer players, albeit soccer players who represent a country we are told is our enemy. At this it succeeds admirably, whilst also (and perhaps unintentionally) raising broader questions concerning the nature of (filmed) reality.

If one were to watch this film with no preconceptions of North Korean life, one could conclude that this was a country with a high standard of living and superior governance — and yet this is no crude propaganda piece. The players speak openly, if guardedly, of their experiences on and off the pitch. Maybe they’ve fully absorbed the lessons of juche ideology and don’t need a script, or were coached to pull the wool over the eyes of a gullible Western filmmaker. Or perhaps they really are better off than we want to believe, and it is we who are fooling ourselves with our own delusions of grandeur.

Then again, perhaps this is only a film about some of the best female soccer players on the planet. I strongly recommend you check out Hana, dul, sed for yourself, and draw your own conclusions.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movie’s Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...