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Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang (2015)

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Score: 8/10

Genre: Documentary Running Time: 1 hr. 35 min.

Release Date: March 27th, 2015 (Phoenix Film Festival) MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Colin Offland Actors: Dennis Rodman, Cliff Robinson, Charles Smith, Antoine Scott, Andre Pool

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orth Korea is widely regarded as the world’s most isolated and repressive state. Ever since its birth at the end of World War II, it’s been a mysterious civilization, cut off geographically and politically from the modern world – and from its neighbor, South Korea, by a 4-kilometer wide buffer zone. “Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang” chronicles what happened when the former NBA star staged a sporting event in North Korea – the likes of which no one had ever seen.

Upbeat rock music and colorful opening graphics introduce the premise, which documents basketball legend Dennis Rodman’s several visits to the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). In September 2013, a press conference was held to announce that the DPRK’s Ministry of Sports was organizing a basketball event to be played in January 2014, to coincide with supreme leader Kim Jong-un’s birthday (something many eventual participants were purportedly unaware of). Raising money with Paddy Power, one of the biggest gambling companies in the UK, Dennis Rodman is set to make the trip, hoping to bridge the gap between North Korea and the United States. This conflicts with the current U.S. foreign policies, which are to essentially ignore North Korea’s communications.

Wisely and informatively, the documentary touches upon a few historical highlights to educate the viewer on political climates – including 1994’s tensions with North Korea, interactions with China, the Axis of Evil proclamation, Kenneth Bae’s incarceration, Jong-un’s uncle’s execution, and more. It also mentions Rodman’s brief fling with Madonna and briefer marriage to Carmen Electra, his flamboyant style and dress, and the NBA’s refusal to allow the production to use any official game footage (or Rodman highlights). Kim Jong-un just wants to see a real b-ball match; several experts, guides, and interested parties (along with Rodman’s agent Darren Prince and personal assistant Vo) view this as an opportunity to change relations with North Korea and perhaps alter people’s perceptions on both sides.

Once in the country, Rodman and crew (including Paddy Power representatives) are invited to an 18-course welcome dinner with the Minister of Physical Culture & Sports, Ri Jong-mu. In quasi-communist states like the DPRK, part of their propaganda involves successful-looking athletic competitions; since basketball is Jong-un’s favorite sport, plenty of money and attention are spent on the national teams. Dennis and entourage are taxied around the capital to be shown the finest facilities and undeniably used in a bit of manipulative propaganda – even visiting a war museum full of captured American aircraft. But, as one U.S. official on North Korea explains, touristy spots are largely part of human nature and the country’s wish to show off the best it has to offer.

“Does Dennis really know what he’s getting himself into?” asks the narrator. Just before Christmas, international interest in the game erupts, coercing Paddy Power to pull out, leaving the show completely in the hands of Rodman. Despite death threats and an overwhelming amount of negative media attention, he recruits former NBA stars Cliff Robinson, Doug Christie, Kenny Anderson, Guy Dupree, Vin Baker, Andre Pool, Antoine Scott, and Charles Smith (as well as a coach) to participate in the monumental exhibition game. And the stresses of public scrutiny and familial dramas have led to Rodman taking up heavy drinking again. Strangely, if anything could turn this significant gathering into a laughable circus, it’s Rodman’s drunken rants. Perhaps that makes the entire ordeal more cinematic, especially when he screams at an Irish journalist during a gala and tries to lead warm-up drills at 10:00 AM while completely inebriated.

Considering how rare it is to see any footage from the DPRK, the appropriately titled “Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang” holds a striking level of intrigue just for being an assemblage of such eye-opening recordings. Producer/director Colin Offland imparts a humorous tone to the whole thing (likely the only way to deflect what could be seen as controversial and offensive), tempering the culture shock that would have been more poignant if the visuals weren’t so immoderately controlled and restricted. Of course, nothing can suppress the irrational outrageousness, overall naivety, and powder keg impulsiveness of Rodman, who refuses to stay on script or conform to traditional standards of diplomacy and professionalism. And the climax, which is the match itself (with its refusal to focus too intently on the final score), possesses an astonishing degree of thought-provoking representation for two incompatible countries with zero governmental unity.

– Mike Massie

 



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