“Is North Korea the loneliest place on Earth?” According to one of the more evocative intertitles in Soon-mi Yoo’s 2014 documentary Songs from the North, the country has “no friends, no history, only myths, repeated endlessly from morning to night.” An intoxicating, unorthodox, and somewhat elusive essay, it delves into some of these national myths, featuring assorted propagandistic materials from the country. There’s a mix of songs, state media, old films, and footage of plays, performances, and other public spectacles. Interspersed are the filmmaker’s musings and her memories of her father. Through this, the film looks neutrally at a nation that is usually reviled or laughed at, and is sensitive toward the people who live there, who are rarely heard from and even more rarely sincerely listened to.
The film screens as part of a small focus on Yoo, an artist-filmmaker and a teacher at MassArt, at this year’s London Korean Film Festival. Though the subject is North Korea, Songs from the North is as much about the country’s relationship to South Korea, where Yoo and her father are from, and the US, where she currently works and lives. “Is it possible to imagine a different North Korea?” she asks at one point. She says that first we would have to “imagine a different USA.” Through interlinking and contrasting footage looking at Korea’s traumatic division, the various wars it’s been subjected to, and America’s role in both, Yoo shows how the three states are inseparable.
The film, which uses its interviews and diaristic intertitles to offer insights into otherwise context-free footage, reveals early on that Yoo’s father fought in the Korean War, and that many of his friends migrated North afterward. She speaks of a sense of “longing all my life for a place I was not permitted to go until recently,” a desire to find out what life is actually like there behind the one-sided depictions imposed on the country and its own self-mythologizing spectacle.
Filming in North Korea across three occasions between 2010 and 2012, Yoo at first finds things which seem to mirror the images the country projects of itself. People (on camera at least) remain reverent toward their leaders (the three generations of Kim feature heavily in the footage), tearing up when asked about them, or else speaking positively when asked about their living situations. The longer she lingers, though, the more this veneer fades. One man is visibly uncomfortable at what her presence imposes on him, saying she is “filming too long.” Fault lines appear, surfaces seems close to cracking, but always authorities always interfere before anything can be revealed.
The sharpest images come from the country’s own media. Kim Il-sung lingers in the popular consciousness through his persistent position, even long after his passing, in musical and visual representations that continue to dominate the cultural consciousness. One piece of footage references a song supposedly so powerful that it caused Japanese soldiers to retreat and lose all will to fight. In another, during a state celebration, everyone sheds tears as a child speaks about what performing in a parade means to him.
Yoo creatively cuts between images that fascinate with their bombast and ones that offer something more tender, interspersing slices of a country as it wants to be viewed with times when that facade crumbles. The overall experience is abstract, but the images are not presented as alien. Moving fast and expecting the viewer to keep up, Yoo constructs a composite of a nation, often obstructed and by necessity incomplete, to present North Korea as complex and multiplicitous. North Korea is often seen only through the actions of its leaders, but Songs from the North presents a different perspective. It’s in a curious position, refracting the insular country’s representations of itself, trying to see what lies beneath.
The London Korean Film Festival runs November 1 through 14.