Opening Ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics: TV Review

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A stirring display of national pride and hope.
2/9/2018

Peace and harmony, nature and technology were signature themes of a kickoff built on elegant pageantry and a unifying political message.

If Donald Trump was watching NBC's opening coverage of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics with his hand hovering over that 'uge red button on his desk (just in case North Korea sprang a surprise military parade), he can relax. The overriding theme of the ceremony, during which athletes from North and South Korea historically marched together under a single unified flag, was peace and harmony. And even if senior U.S. delegate Mike Pence mostly looked like he was attending a war-room meeting, the mood of hope and reconciliation — no matter how tenuous — hung in the air above the 35,000-seat stadium.

Despite being seated in the same box, Pence conspicuously did not shake the hand of senior North Korean delegate Kim Yo-jong, the influential younger sister of national leader Kim Jong Un, and the first member of North Korea's ruling family to visit the neighboring sovereign state since the Korean War. But her cordial handshake with South Korean president Moon Jae-in was a symbolic gesture loaded with meaning. The same goes for women's hockey teammates Chung Su-hyon and Park Jong-ah, respectively from North and South Korea, ascending the steps together on the final leg of the Olympic torch to light the cauldron.

As for the NBC commentary, there were of course the usual banalities. Biding time before the U.S. team's entry, Mike Tirico felt the need to identify Mongolia as "one of the 53 countries competing never to have won a Winter Games medal." Snap. And Olympics veteran Katie Couric was hardly taxing herself when she shared that the U.S. team's Ralph Lauren outfits were indeed "toasty." (BTW, what's with those ugly outsize fringed Davy Crockett mittens?)

But there were few if any major clunkers among the studio comments, and in the artistic sequences, the co-hosts had done their homework, providing useful context for some of the more perplexing vignettes. Most notably, NBC did not shy away from the political angle. Reflecting on why the team collaboration of North and South Korea was so historic, NBC Sports Asia analyst Joshua Cooper Ramo asked bluntly: "Are these teams taking their first steps down a new and peaceful path? Or is this the very last image of fellowship and hope before tragedy strikes the people of this peninsula?" That will be the uncertainty soon facing Moon, a relatively new president clearly seizing on this global platform to try to effect political change at a tense time.

Back to that cauldron — lit by beloved figure skating superstar Yuna Kim — it looked like one of the visiting interplanetary pods from Arrival. And the multicolored glow of the open-air pentagonal Pyeongchang Stadium, seen nestled in a valley from a distance, recalled the climactic scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

But this was no futuristic sci-fi spectacle, despite an awkward detour into robotics designed to show South Korea at the technological forefront. All the digital holograms, twinkling drones, meticulously coordinated laser displays and Wi-Fi torches notwithstanding, the show had an organic feel that made nature as much a key theme as technology.

Could it have been more exciting? Sure, not to mention a little less repetitive. (Really? The Rainbow Children's Choir again? More fireworks?) Director Song Seung-whan, a South Korean actor and popular theater producer, emphasized elegant yin-yang symmetries and harmonious circles, with dance ensembles, taekwondo athletes and massive phalanxes of female ceremonial drummers and marchers — disassembling and reforming in one especially impressive vignette into the red and blue Taeguk and surrounding four black trigrams of the South Korean flag.

There was beauty and careful thought in these pageantry displays, often with exquisitely costumed dancers working the elongated sleeves of their traditional hanbok. But there was less of the local humor, spontaneous spirit and detailed cultural storytelling of recent openers such as London or Rio de Janeiro.

I kept wondering how wild the show might have been had it been put in the hands of a more idiosyncratic auteur with an allegorical bent, like Bong Joon-ho. A surprise appearance by the rampaging mammoth pig from Okja, or even that river-dwelling monster from The Host, would have injected a welcome shot of eccentricity. A spicy side of kimchi, if you will.

The closest thing to a wacky element was the choice to channel unrelenting EDM-mixed K-pop behind the endless Parade of Nations. The 242-member U.S. team got the dubious honor of marching into the arena accompanied by Psy's "Gangnam Style" — even if "Hey, sexy lady" does seem a kinda jarring refrain in the #MeToo era.

Elsewhere, a blast of fun in the parade came courtesy of Tongan cross-country skier Pita Taufatofua, who repeated his scene-stealing Rio feat by carrying his nation's flag while looking resplendent in a dramatic black-and-red grass skirt and a naked, oiled torso — in 28-degree cold no less. ("Mike, I'll handle this one," Couric told her co-commentator in one of her more disarming moments.) The guy is a superhero. Plus it was a relief from all those puffer jackets and beanies. Loved the ice princesses leading each group of athletes, but let's just ignore the distracting dancers ringing the central field, who spent an hour bouncing around like demented Teletubbies.

Considering the show was staged for a fraction of the budgets of notable mega-openers like Sochi or Beijing, however, Pyeongchang put on a class act.

It now seems almost a requirement that every Olympics kickoff begins with one or more wide-eyed children as our guide. This time was no exception. The five kids were first seen playing in snow that coughed up a crystal ball that led them into an icebound Raiders of the Lost Ark-type cave of ancient cultural artifacts. Among the floating golden relics, a hologram of a tiger appeared, transforming as they entered the stadium into a six-man costumed version with a debt both to East Asian parade dragons and to the kind of imaginative theatrical puppetry seen in shows like The Lion King and War Horse. Watching the children scamper around the magical beast, symbolizing protection and strength, brought a lump even to this parched throat.

That white tiger — the Games' mascot — was then joined by other creatures drawn from both nature and fantasy, including a spectacular white phoenix with the head of a woman. This made for one of the most enchanting and eye-popping sequences of the night, particularly since it was so low-tech and hand-crafted compared to other sections of the show.

Not that many of the more technologically sophisticated elements weren't dazzling. The dance number involving illuminated doors was a head-scratcher, and the mix of ultramodernity and tradition in that section could have been more fluid, with filmed segments somewhat clumsily shoehorned in. But the image of 1,200 illuminated shooting-star drones ascending a piste, transforming first into a giant snowboarder and then into the Olympic rings, was an unforgettable one. Likewise the eloquent simplicity of two enormous dove outlines fusing into one, slowly filled with the light of thousands of candles.

It's those powerful visual moments — not the regrettable rendition of "Imagine" — that will be most viewers' takeaway.

U.S. coverage was marred on opening day by an insanely tone-deaf online editorial from Fox News exec John Moody (since removed, following an outcry) criticizing the national Olympic Committee for boasting a team of unprecedented inclusiveness in terms of race and sexuality. Moody took issue with a bias he perceived toward "Darker, Gayer, Different." I found the infectious joy of 18-year-old Maame Biney, one of the first African-American women to represent the U.S. in speed skating, to be the most memorable nugget of NBC's overlong preamble to the ceremony itself.

The sense of different people, divided by race, culture, politics or language, coming together for both individual and team glory is what makes the Olympics as much a sentimental event as a sporting competition. And even if the end of the Games two weeks-plus from now brings a return to nuclear anxiety, watching North and South Korean athletes share flag duty struck a poignant note. Pence's decision not to stand, regardless of his justifiable skepticism about this moment of staged unity, at the very least showed a lack of respect toward a host country that pulled off a remarkable achievement.

Venue: Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, South Korea
Director: Song Seung-whan

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