1966. The World Cup will take place in England. North Korea takes part in the final battle for the first time as a republic and shows the public a true spectacle by winning more than anyone ever expected. This documentary tells the story of the team that delivered this extraordinary achievement and gives us a glimpse of the veil of the country of North Korea. The latter alone is special in the film world and makes “The Game of Their Lives” worthwhile. During the qualifications for the final battle, in 1965, there is only one place to be given for all countries from Africa, Asia and Oceania. In protest against this discriminatory measure, all countries involved are withdrawing except Australia and North Korea. These two teams play against each other in Cambodia, where the North Koreans deliver their first unexpected performance and qualify for the World Cup. In the matches that follow, the young Koreans show a strong example of football to astonished opponents and a growing fan base.
The documentary is also partly an excuse to film in North Korea; to study, get to know and show its inhabitants. The starting point of the World Cup has been well chosen to give the story a light and human touch, and a valid reason to be allowed to film in North Korea at all.
The only downside to the documentary comes from this, because the only images we get to see here of North Korea and the inhabitants of the country, despite the few images that reach us (Western audience) about this subject, do not bring anything new. Koreans in massive numbers, in uniform or sportswear, paying homage to the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, through acrobatics, sports and music. Buttons of the same Kim Il Sung, or his son Kim Jong Il, the current leader of the Republic. Grown men moved to tears as they remember their meeting with the Supreme Leader. This film does not make the country any more comprehensible, nor the men and women (especially men) we get to see. Prejudices are mainly confirmed, although it is unclear whether this is due to the Koreans themselves, who may not show the back of their tongues, or the filmmaker, who has been unable to see through this.
The film is well put together and above all very well constructed. We keep seeing new parts of the story, without knowing the outcome. The many men interviewed add a personal note, both the Koreans themselves and players from other teams, but also English – now – men whose hearts the team had conquered at the time. The pleasant whole is well worth watching, but one should not expect in-depth politics or completely new visions of North Korea.