SONGS FROM THE NORTH by Soon-Mi Yoo
“North Korea has always been above me” said Soon-Mi Yoo last Friday night while introducing her first feature film Songs From the North at Anthology Film Archives in the East Village. The South Korean-born, U.S-based filmmaker and artist explained how the enigma of North Korea—not exactly the elephant in the room but still awkwardly present—has lingered around the back of South Korea’s mind for generations. Yoo grew up with unclear notions and a vague portrait of what the North really was. The seclusion of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), its constant tension with South Korea and the cultural and economic sanctions and travel restrictions enforced by most of the world positioned the North at a distant and abstract territory for Yoo. However, due to Yoo’s recent acquisition of a U.S. passport, she ironically had the freedom to fly to the DPRK on three different occasions to complete her film. But it was primarily the overwhelming amount of propaganda, misinformation and a sense of mystery that has not only distorted but reduced North Korea to a mere notion
Yoo’s brief introduction insightfully provided a fair amount of historical context on the political relationships between the two Koreas, past and present and their relationship with rest of the world, emphasizing the role of foreign intervention in the segregation of these two nations, the U.S.’s in particular. More than a historical inquiry about the subject of North Korea, the film plays as a poetic and lyrical examination of Yoo’s own thoughts on this subject. And more than a documentary, it is the careful selection of images of faces, bodies, landscapes, architectural spaces and spectacle that make Songs from the North just beautiful to look at, a well-crafted exploration both unique and subtly subversive.
Songs from the North plays as a very personal meditation. Yoo contrasts images of the Korean war, her own recoded footage, and Korean propaganda movies and some outrageous Korean television specials. The outcome becomes a clashing portrait of a society: their collective dreams of reunification, their nightmares, their government-injected hatred towards the U.S.—the disturbing shots at the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities is particularly disturbing in many ways—and of course their paternal worshiping of the Kim dynasty, whose cult of personality is approaching seventy years in a three-generation lineage.
If we read film as collective memory, or as a recording of collective conciousness, Songs from the North in a way recalls the opening sequence of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, but instead of dealing with the trauma of atomic annihilation, here Yoo deals with people’s trauma of a nation divided by a scarred political and metaphysical border. For many North Koreans, separation was an aggression inflicted by the U.S government. For them, post-war Germany was a cautionary tale and they dreamt of one day reuniting their divided nation.
Yoo’s curiosity about North Korea originates from her father’s own post-war experiences as a left-wing sympathizing student at Seoul National University. She interviews her father —he is the only person formally interviewed in the film—who unlike his Communist colleagues, didn’t migrate North.
After the film, Yoo came out again for a Q&A. A woman in the audience pointed out that there are no interviews with local Koreans and that the film still holds a very Western perspective. In any other case, this would be a valid point to make but I think the mistake was to see the film as a political documentary instead of more of a personal diary and reflection. The film’s strength lies precisely in that it doesn’t force a political assertion. But is it even possible to make a film about North Korea and not have some sort of a political statement? Or is Yoo just asking how should we even portray such a society? Questions still remain on how to deal with North Korea not just culturally or geopolitically— but artistically as well.