This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.
No two films I saw at Locarno could be further apart than Soon-Mi Yoo’s documentary-essay “Songs From the North” and “Durak,” the third fiction feature of Yury Bykov. The themes of cinema (and art for that matter) are only a few, and at their core, both films deal with the tension between individuality and community (or, to conceptualize further, between freedom and equality).
In “Songs From the North,” director (also cinematographer and editor) Soon-Mi Yoo blends footage shot on location with archive footage into a very personal view of the people of North Korea. The community here appears to be encompassing all. Not just the people, but nature itself seems to be uniting into one single direction and one single being. The individuals, though they have a physical presence, are either part of larger structure or just different representations of the same idea or action. This is most evident in the archive footage: same uniforms, same haircuts, the collective singing and dancing. The unity of the people seems to be as strong, monolithic and bleak as the desolate concrete blocks or the wide streets where bikers pass by once in a while, and cars even further apart.
Soon-Mi Yoo tries to find cracks in this wall, but most importantly to understand the substance of this community that can’t all be propaganda and brainwash. “Is this love or disease?” she asks at one point. “Songs From the North” doesn’t try to impose or even provide an answer. The viewer has to make up his own mind, to try and see through the propaganda — and all video material produced in North Korea is propaganda. Sometimes the manipulation is just so plainly ridiculous and funny, like the military man swimming underwater, pushing a mine away from the Fatherland with his bare hands.
But the film doesn’t make it that easy for you. One of the highlights is a piece of archive footage of a boy giving an emotional testimony in front of some thousands of people. He talks about his traitorous father and how his mother died, and how he was eventually saved by the Marshall. At this point, the petrified community turns genuinely organic: The boy begins to cry as he talks — his high-pitched singing voice, unyielding — his colleagues sitting behind him start to sob, and even the old generals clad in medals and the high ranking officials are rubbing their eyes behind thick glasses. As a viewer you cannot refute that the emotion is there, at the most you can challenge the reasons for it being there. But then, something happens that really makes you work for the “appropriate” response. In an instant they all dart forward, tears still in their eyes and arms extended in a dance pose, calling out the Marshall’s name. The viewer is split between his own emotional state and the impulse to laugh at this choreography. The questions keep coming and there is no answer: love or disease? Is it all just propaganda, and if so, does that make it less true?
You can only be sure if you keep a distance, if nobody knows you’re watching. Alone in her hotel room, Soon-Mi Yoo peers through the curtain into the street below. It might as well be dubbed the North Korean shot. It is the only way you can get some measure of reality, of individuality. Down below, a solitary biker crosses a huge plaza covered in snow, an avatar of the unfortunate biker that happens to be crossing the battlefield in the Lumière film “Snowball Fight.” A few other people are also there, a mother with her son or daughter, you can’t really tell. There is no choreography, nobody is walking in a straight, predetermined line and it’s nice to see the atoms going about freely without joining together in a more complex structure. You get the feeling that they have snowball fights in North Korea.
In “Durak,” we see the dissolution of community. “Durak” is the fool, the one who plays by the rules, and rules make the community, they are only needed when you have at least two individuals. The connection is present even in the titles: “Durak” is an individual, while in Soon-Mi Yoo’s movie the songs are from the North, not a person, but a population.
The fool is Dimitri, a plumber with a young family, working his way through college, and walking in his father’s footsteps: the original “Durak”, a man despised by his wife because all his life he has respected the rules, and has never brought something home from the factory where he had wasted his youth because “It didn’t belong to me.” When Dimitri is called to inspect the pipes in an old building, he realizes that the building is about to collapse. Starting from this premise, and the metaphor of the crumbling building, director and scriptwriter Yury Bykov tears down brick by brick every community that could be imagined, any kind of predictable and stable relationship between at least two persons. The community is nothing but an empty façade.
At first the city seems to be divided on a class basis: The poor, and the convicted and the addicts living together in the old building and the rich city officials getting drunk at the mayor’s birthday party. The officials are all corrupted and if the building falls, and the central authorities get involved, they know they will all fall like dominoes: they all took money and they all covered for each other. It seems, at least, that they are a community based on crime. The city officials even call the mayor “Mama”; she has always taken care of them.
The film’s Antonioni-inspired camerawork follows Dimitri into the room where the officials are gathered, and stays with them as the main character makes his exit. The movie now takes a turn towards theater and fable, as we see typical characters confessing their various crimes without any reason except to make a point for the audience. The mayor crying that she is a single woman, raising two kids, as an argument for getting her hands dirty is almost hilarious with a touch of absurdity. When her speech starts an avalanche of confessions and accusation, a more rigid viewer might even complain of bad scriptwriting. At the same time, the acting is so good, that the spectator has to allow for the concept to sink in notwithstanding the artificiality of the scene: they all have a point, they’re only human. Living in a small, desolate, snowy town, they have to make a good life for themselves. Everybody here is on their own. There are rules of course, but everyone goes around them. And the rules that are observed, make for absurd situations: the fire department chief keeps getting funding for supplies even though there hasn’t been a fire in ten years.
But even this community of shared guilt doesn’t last for long. Two of the officials directly involved in the repair money embezzlement are killed and framed for the impending disaster. Dimitri is given a chance to leave town, but he turns back when he understands the authorities are not going to evacuate. His wife doesn’t understand him and he urges her to take off with their son, the community of marriage is put to the test and dissolves. The same happens with his family, even his father fails him when he agrees that he wasn’t a good role model for teaching him to play by the rules. He manages to evacuate the people all by himself, but they beat him up because they believe he is a troublemaker with a hidden agenda. There is no trust, and no community (except for this random act of violence which is inflicted on him). After the confusion, we see one other person lying hurt on the ground, maybe somebody who was trying to save him. The other man makes a feeble attempt to help Dimitri and then exits the frame. The fool has learned his lesson.
There is a similar scene in both films, where these two extremities of community are best underlined. In “Songs From the North”, the main character of a North Korean film leaves his wife in order to serve his country and she is called a traitor because she doesn’t want him to leave. In “Durak,” the wife leaves the main character in order to save herself and her son. In one instance, family is sacrificed for the greater community. In the other, family is sacrificed for the safety of its individual components.