JDIFF Review – Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang

In early 2014, former NBA star Dennis Rodman took a troupe of his peers to North Korea to compete against the national team for Kim Jong-un’s birthday. The North Korean leader and Rodman had been unlikely friends for some time, but Rodman’s attempt to ‘open the door’ between the closed off nation and the US created a scandal around the world. For the first time, director Colin Offland tells the truth about what happened when one of America’s most flamboyant sports stars went to a closed off nation in the name of sports.

The story behind Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang is almost too absurd to make up, add to this the involvement of Irish betting agency Paddy Power, Irish journalist Matt Cooper and a college professor being in the entourage, and this story goes from bizarre to slightly ridiculous.

Thankfully Offland knows the weirdness of the story he is telling, and frames it in such a way to remind the audience of the absurdity of it all. Matt Cooper – yes, the Irish journalist who found himself writing a book about the whole shebang, and unlikely target of Rodman’s rage at one stage – narrates the film, and does wonderful job of sounding playful and keeping the feel of the film upbeat.

Dennis Rodman is a man who seems born to be the star of a documentary, so over the top are his antics, but it soon becomes clear that while it seems the basketball game has been planned in good faith – comparisons are drawn to a ping pong game that eased tensions between the US and China – he seems woefully ignorant of the issues surrounding his visits to North Korea and his friendship with Kim Jong-un. Singing Let ‘Em In by Wings as justification for his actions seems wilfully ignorant, but Rodman seems unwilling to concern himself with politics, and to genuinely believe that the North Korean leader is a good man.

Offlan’s film tracks the various trips that Rodman took to the most closed off country in the world, which paints the picture that there seems to be no desire from Rodman to court controversy. When it lands at his door, however, he is ill-equipped to deal with it, turning to alcohol to cope, which changes Rodman from well-intentioned to angry and petulant, and in turn changes the trip from dignified to rather manic. This then, makes the film rather comedic, and often painful to watch… In the most entertaining way.

Although much of the film was shot in North Korea, there is very little evidence of the totalitarian regime that is depicted elsewhere in the media, and not surprisingly, since the gang were on Pyongyang on Kim Jong-un’s invitation. That said, the film makes sure to point out the aspects of the country that seems strange to us in the West; no advertising, empty roads and massive statues commemorating the cult of celebrity that has grown up around the North Korean leaders past and present.

In all, Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang is a peek behind the borders of one of the most-controlled countries in the world. Rodman himself comes off as almost wilfully ignorant, but with good intentions, Matt Cooper narrates wonderfully and the film as a whole seems to be aware of the absurdity of the situation, leading to a lot of laughs, but an unsettling feeling.

Rating: 4/5

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