The 94-minute film by Vancouver-based director Nigel Edwards incorporates footage from three visits to Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (colloquially known as “North Korea”) in 2016, 2017, and 2018. It also includes the national team’s trip to New Zealand to compete in the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B, where they finished fourth out of six teams. It is now available on Vimeo On Demand worldwide, Apple TV in the U.S. and Canada, and iTunes in Canada.
Numbers don’t fully capture the essence of Closing the Gap. It’s not a traditional hockey documentary. Edwards’ cameras also linger on Pyongyang’s architecture with its stark socialist towers and sweeping boulevards and plazas. One memorable sequence sees the team paying its respects at the Mansu Hill Giant Monument with huge statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim-Jong Il before departing for Auckland.
A certain emphasis on masculinity in hockey culture in DPR Korea, which became an IIHF member in 1963, becomes apparent. Coach Park Chol Ho speaks of his introduction to hockey at age 13: “I fell in love with hockey because I thought it was a manly sport.” Forward Kim Hyok Ju smiles with nostalgia: “I learned hockey as an expression of love from my father.”
The players, who sport track suits and lug their own Bauer hockey bags, bring great intensity to their training, but can also benefit from more exposure to high-level competition overseas. (DPR Korea is 41st in the 2020 IIHF Men’s World Ranking.) Their exuberant celebrations during an 11-3 romp over Turkey reflect a love of hockey that transcends time and place.
Edwards’ crew was embedded with both the Taesongsan club team and the national team, with no restrictions in terms of filming their 250-odd hours of footage. His collaborators included producers Matt Reichel, who has visited DPR Korea more than 40 times to organize humanitarian projects and tour groups, and Sunny Hahm, who grew up playing hockey in Vancouver and speaks Korean in part due to his grandfather’s North Korean heritage.
Edwards, who studied film at Vancouver’s Capilano University and worked as a producer’s assistant on the TV crime series Motive, chatted with IIHF.com about Closing the Gap recently.
How did this project originally come up?
Around 2015, Matt Reichel kind of just brought it up with me in a bar: “They have a hockey team in North Korea.” At the same time, my university was offering money for first-time features. I went into this pitch: “I’m going to go pitch hockey in North Korea! What do you think about that?” And he said: “Yeah, great.” And so what started out as a bar conversation about hockey in North Korea slowly evolved into a three-year epic, with multiple trips.
How did you choose the title for the film?
When I started to do some research, I was looking up some hockey terms. “Closing the Gap,” of course, came up as a description of the gap between the last man back and the puck-carrier. What we tried to do was build that in metaphorically. We wanted to close the gap between our world and theirs through hockey.
What discussions led up to your filming in North Korea?
The discussions came on the backbone of this relationship that Matt had been building with the North Koreans for the last 10 years. Over that time, he brought more and more people in and more tourism and more opportunities to create business in North Korea, but also externally for his company. So there’s a lot of rapport and trust with him. Our invitation really came through the Ministry of Sport. We had full rein to see the hockey players and the figure skaters, who were also at the 2018 Olympics.
What was it like to arrive in DPR Korea for the first time?
We showed up at night. We got in late. I love travelling to countries and arriving at night, because you get a different flavour than you would showing up first thing in the morning. Then you wake up into a new place. Having no cell phone reception or internet or whatever, it really raised the bar in terms of relationships. Initially, they’re your guides and facilitators, but they very quickly become your friends, because they’re just as curious about you as you are about them. Not so much about how our country works, but more like, “Do you have kids? What do you do in your spare time?” All these little nuances that sort of build over time.
A lot of people get disappointed when they find out that I’m not a super-hockey fan. I think by proxy, I have to be considered a Canucks fan from living in Vancouver. I played hockey when I was about five years old. And then my family became a ski family, and my parents said: “We’re either going to play hockey or we’re going to go ski.” So I can skate and I can play, but I was never really any good at it!
I think the Koreans were really drawn to Sunny. He provided a lot of expertise in terms of breaking down their style of play. In our final trip, we brought a goalie coach named Francois Lemay from Windsor. He actually did on-ice and dryland training with both the men’s and women’s national teams, plus youth teams.
What did a typical day of filming in Pyongyang look like?
We stayed at the Changgwangsan Hotel, which is right next to the hockey rink. You wake up and you have breakfast in the hotel. We always went for the Korean breakfast, which had kimchi, rice, eggs, maybe some sort of fish or meat, really great. We always had way too much food in the morning. We’d make coffee that we brought ourselves from Canada, because we’re snobs like that, with a French press. Then we’d head to the ice rink, get suited up in the locker room, and get on the ice with whichever team was playing.
We primarily focused on documenting the men’s team. A lot of on-ice stuff kind of became repetitive, but it was just building trust, right? From Day One, we’d have guys flipping pucks at us. Even though they didn’t speak our language, you could kind of tell they were interested and curious about us.
We’d break for lunch at a local restaurant and then continue on with different things in Pyongyang, whether it be seeing special sights or having a driver take us around the city.
Can you talk about more about your interactions with the women’s national team?
We were doing some dryland training with the women’s players after they went to the Olympics in 2018. They were just the most fun group to work with.
They’re always smiling. Not to say the men don’t smile, but I just think when you compare the men’s and women’s teams, with the men they have a bigger age gap. Some players are closer to 40 years old, whereas you also have 19- and 20-year-olds. Then on the women’s team, there’s a much tighter age gap. So they were a lot more collegial with each other, as opposed to the men, who don’t want to offend the older gentlemen on the team. It’s out of respect in Asian culture. I think there were moments with the women’s team that didn’t make the cut because it didn’t fit the narrative for this documentary.
The funny thing about seeing the North Koreans in a foreign environment was that, much like the way that we were sort of chaperoned or handled in North Korea, for our own sake of ease and organization, but for them as well, they were very scheduled in Auckland. “We show up to the hotel, we eat, we go to sleep, we go to the ice rink, we train, we come back, then we play a game.” And that’s it.
There were no sort of extracurricular events, no visits to the beaches or parks. Unfortunately, with their schedule, but also with their number one goalie going down early on in the tournament, that really put a strain on them. They were quite preoccupied with that.
How would you describe where you wanted to go with Andrew Lee’s soundtrack?
Well, sport is so easy to dramatize. We’re all very familiar with documentary specials like Netflix’s Last Chance U, by the same guys who did Cheer. There’s a lot of drama that happens with sport already. So we wanted to lyricize some of the emotional qualities with the North Koreans, using the imagery to influence the picture.
It’s almost like a world stuck in time. Not too far away, either in the past or in the future. But it’s like this post-modern, futuristic look of ice warriors. If you remember Red Army [directed by Gabe Polsky in 2014], which focused on the Russian Five, that film did a lot in terms of drawing on the old Soviet music and stuff like that. I only used a few tracks of authentic or traditional Korean music. Our hope was kind of to paint these guys into more of a futuristic light.
Do you feel you succeeded in “Closing the Gap”?
The best way to describe it is by reference to the closing line of the film. One of the players, after an exchange of dialogue, took an opportunity to ask us questions. What you don’t hear in the closing line of the film is our response. I think they’re just like us. I feel like I’ve said this a million times, but it’s still very true. They’re human beings with two eyes, two arms, two legs. They put their pants on the same way we do. And they just want what we want.
If you think about a national-level athlete, what do they want inherently? They want to do well. They want to win gold. They want to do well for their country, for their family, for themselves. I think that is something that resounds through sport.