Songs from the North
Directed by Soon-mi Yoo
September 18-24 at Anthology Film Archives
An essay film on that classic personal-political fault line, Soon-mi Yoo’s Songs From the North takes a searching look at the official-history pageantry of North Korea—and tries admirably, if often unsuccessfully, to make out the imprint it’s left on everyday life there. The 72-minute movie, for which the Korean-American director picked up a debut-feature prize at Locarno, is perhaps most remarkable for the archival material it generously excerpts: big-budget party-devotion productions, striped with tracking lines as they reach their half-life on VHS; a digital animation of an underground nuclear test, rendering the detonation as big-bang ecstatic; a telecast of a state-function stage show that climaxes with a child wailing a scripted sob story, leaving nary a dry eye among the suits in the audience. The film’s main mode of address, though, is first-person, as Yoo relies on diaristic intertitles to work in her own Hermit Kingdom impressions alongside the found footage.
As a visitor, the director pointedly declines to play thorn-in-the-side, by all appearances putting her camera away whenever she was asked to; she’s also careful to avoid editing-room lapses into the type of WTF ridicule that has dominated the last decade of American visual presentations of the North, from gotcha docs to stock-photo listicles (not to mention studio comedies). Yoo’s primary record, then, is low-key almost to the point of banal, but hers is nonetheless a portrait of the country that can feel (very quietly) revelatory. She observes patterns of foot traffic on snow-covered streets, a leisurely game of back-room billiards, a man fighting back tears at a memorial to original supreme leader Kim Il-sung. “You really are filming everything,” he eventually reproves Yoo. Most everyone here, aside from some of the more boisterous schoolchildren filing past, objects to the camera’s presence, though they do so as politely as possible.
Songs From the North is rounded out by portions of an interview Yoo conducted with her South Korean father, many of whose communist friends went North after the war, only to face brutal purges down the line. Thus the film establishes, in one fell swoop, a measure of explicit critical distance on the cult of personality it examines up close, as well as the source of the filmmaker’s personal connection to the subject matter in the first place. Yoo’s arrangement of her material, intuitive but ever attuned to subtleties both political and emotional, remains something of a marvel throughout—especially since she manages to make the most of a travelogue that’s not always very penetrating.