DPRK Film: “Centre Forward” – 2013 MIFF Review

When “Centre Forward” was released in 1978, North Korea had competed in just one World Cup in its history, 12 years earlier.  However, their appearance in England made a significant impact and created much national pride as they stormed through to the quarterfinals, defeating heavily-favored Italy along the way.

Therefore, a North Korean black-and-white feature film about football is not all that surprising.  What is surprising, however, is the film’s overall moral that makes ideological references secondary, and at times unnoticeable.  The simple lesson that hard work can bring about resounding success if one can weather the many storms along the way is the universal story that many can enjoy in “Centre Forward.”

“Centre Forward” begins with an upbeat anthem extolling the virtues of speed – fitting given that the current national team’s nickname is “Chollima,” a winged horse symbolic of quickness, and whose image serves as an introduction to every North Korean film and DVD release including this one.  The plot then does not waste any time focusing on the hardships of Cha In Son (played by Kim Chol), a journeyman athlete who has the talent to play for the Taesongsan Football Club but not necessarily the right work ethic.  When his lapses cause the team to suffer its first defeat of the season, In Son endures a professional identity crisis and the Taesongsan executives attempt to figure out what is going wrong.  Things get a lot worse before they get better, and management must address issues such as a sagging collective morale and tension between colleagues, as all the beer in the world can only do so much to help teammates relax in their down time.  In other words, these are familiar realities not far off from many places in the world in 2013.

For more insight into the making of the film, those who have a chance to see “Centre Forward” on the Koryo Tours’ issued DVD are treated to some bonus interviews.  Han Yu Il, an assistant cameraman for the movie, confirmed that it was Kim Il-sung’s son and eventual successor, the late Kim Jong-il, who ran the filmmaking scene in North Korea even at that time.  “He advised us filmmakers that it would be good to make a film about sports, particularly about football players,” Han said.  “With the Leader’s teachings as our inspiration, the film crew spent several days with footballers at the sports group.  We trained with them into the night.”  In fact, one of the members of that famed 1966 World Cup team was brought in as a technical consultant to help the actors come across as skilled footballers in the film, in which the outdoor scenes were shot well below zero degrees in the middle of winter.

“Centre Forward” screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) on Sat., Aug. 10, at 1:45 p.m., at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.  The film is part of the Festival’s showcase on North Korean film titled “Juche Showtime: Films of the DPRK,” which also includes screenings of “Hong Kil Dong” and “A Broad Bellflower.”  For tickets, go to the MIFF website.