North Korea’s history of oppression and censorship has been an object of fascination for filmmakers with a wide variety of sensibilities: Jim Finn’s "The Juche Idea" explores North Korea’s peculiar obsession with filmed propaganda, while "The Red Chapel" takes a performance art approach by pranking the government with outlandish behavior, and the upcoming Seth Rogen vehicle "The Interview" imagines a CIA plot to assassinate Kim Jon-un. But none of these efforts adopt a personal approach on par with Soon-mi Yoo’s delicately assembled diary film "Songs From the North," a moving paean to Korean identity through the filter of its darker ingredients.
Yoo has been developing experimental cinema for some 20 years, working through the trauma of the Korean War and South Korean struggles in short films such as "Isahn" and "Dangerous Supplement," but "Songs From the North" displays a more concerted effort to mold these themes into a narrative structure.
Taking cues from the tradition of diary films pioneered by Chris Marker and his ilk, "Songs From the North" finds the South Korean-born Yoo (who lives in the U.S.) crafting a meditation on North Korean society with a mixture of archival materials and footage shot in the country over the course of four years and three visits. Handling editing and camera duties, Yoo recontextualizes the cold nature of North Korea’s government-mandated image by getting intimate with its ramifications.
While she’s heard behind the camera interrogating a few pedestrians and briefly appears in front of it at the end, the filmmaker mainly narrates the collage-like account through oblique, poetic intertitles. As zany footage of North Korean news and propaganda films draw out the country’s unsettling fixation on asserting its authority, Yoo’s written interjections give the material a dreamlike quality tied to her own relationship with it.
Though the more terrible dimensions of the country’s government — its history of imprisonment and execution — remain off-screen, they hover in the details with a phantom-like eeriness. However, the director spends less effort indicting the system than pitying its dwindled state. She describes the culture — or lack thereof — as suffering from "the trauma of separation," while conceding via a climactic explanation from her aging father that reunification is virtually impossible.
The director digs deep into the paradoxes of North Korea through its own images, including the near-comical celebratory wartime song "Nostalgia," and includes snippets of former leader Kim Il-sung, whose legacy continues to loom in contemporary media. Hovering between truth and legend, the director deems her relationship to the country "evil and yet sacred as a mother’s womb." Despite her ability to engage with people on the streets, she notes that even she’s unable to view the country without considering the ghosts of its past, noting that she recognizes landmarks during her visits from U.S. footage of bombings during the war.
Expertly weaving her new footage with official documentation, Yoo creates the sense of drifting through her memories and contemporary experiences at once. Footage of Kim Il-sung proclaiming communist values and singing triumphant melodies, much of which is drawn from what appears to be degraded VHS tapes, takes on a haunting immediacy: It might be the past, but its ramifications are more potent than ever in the static, censored character of the country’s modern state.
Like many found footage projects cobbled together from innumerable sources, "Songs from the North" meanders somewhat as the collage drifts from one observation to another. But just when it starts to drag, the movie snaps back into focus with the emotional tenor of its closing scenes.
Describing North Korea as "a country without friends, without history" as well as "the loneliest place on Earth," Yoo clarifies her frustrations by venturing beyond the boundaries of archival content and eventually settling on the image of North Korea’s next generation. But no matter her reservations about their future prospects, the director opens the window enough to prove that no quantity of propaganda can bury the humanity it’s designed to control. To that end, "Songs from the North" transcends its ruminative qualities and becomes a rescue mission for the country’s soul.
"Songs from the North" premiered this week at the Locarno Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.