Songs From the North

01/09/2018

USA, South Korea & Portugal / 2014 / English & Korean

Directed by Soon-mi Yoo

Songs2It is a scene shot from so far above as to be generic, and could show any number of places: small figures slowly cross a wide open area of an anonymous city in winter, surrounded by buildings with only a few lights on. It is dusk, the sky a neon gray, and everything is seen through the drab fogging of an upper-story window. What we’re seeing evokes either familiarity or a sense of distance, and the idea that the two can exist within one experience informs filmmaker Soon-mi Yoo’s highly personal, mixed-media travelogue through North Korea. Recollections, observations, assumptions and self-image coalesce in Songs From the North, just like they do in human memory, to reflect a chimera rather than a place, one that gets continuously transformed by her experiences.

Yoo talks about this sense of recognition when first touching down in Pyongyang. The land looked familiar to her, and she wasn’t sure from where. However she doesn’t cite some mystical, dreamed connection, or an echo of an ancient unity; the feeling came from aerial footage she had seen, recorded by American troops during bombing campaigns in the 1950s. She probably hadn’t literally seen it there, but her memory is retroactively, and loosely, reconciling it. Indeed, media plays a role as important as memory. Taped broadcasts, performances, and cinema form at least as much of Yoo’s portrait of North Korea as does the footage that she took while visiting there. In using all these heavily stylized scenes along with the unscripted ones from the road, there’s a certain acknowledgement that the media that surround a people become integral elements of how the people construct notions of themselves.

She says that, in the North, they are sustained on a steady diet of myth. But so are we. Already there are similarities there to life outside North Korea – except that their myths get piped through loudspeakers in their homes. Dramatic computer animation of a nuclear rocket launch crosses wires with a decorated military chorus, joyously singing. Real soldiers, whom she passes as they march in a column, look angrier, more disheveled and sunburned. As a media-savvy member of the first world, she feels she knows the place, to some degree, already. But do the repressed, trapped people of the North get to see the same level of reality as Yoo has seen in war documentaries? In a sense, yes: they are given an ideological reality – just like we are – a turgidly consistent one, which she incorporates into her multi-angular portrait of the country.

Delving into North Korean films is like experiencing an epic version of daily life there, wherein proletarian heroes always save the day, usually paying the ultimate price. Again, not altogether different from Western cinema, but with a different set of heroes and villains, a more uncompromising and bald ideological bent. We see the heroine of the film Bellflower (1987), dragging a felled tree trunk through deep snow, an almost operatic struggle towards lifting her isolated village out of poverty. Yoo finds a parallel in her own footage of people on a country road, pulling heavy loads on bicycles and mule carts – similarly primitive tasks, but ones that happen unromanticized, part of the passing scene in the land traveled through.

Songs6The ordinary people whom she encounters sometimes hardly seem to notice her, like the workers in a power station or the girl gleaning fruit from off the ground. Soldiers are looked at cautiously, from the edge of the frame. This is less about presenting scenes in a straight-ahead way, and Yoo avoids getting too context-heavy. It’s more about the trees, gatherings of children, a bar hostess’ laugh, the harrowing cold, a faintly-heard song far away. Even when Yoo visits the Sinchon Museum of American Atrocities, she focuses on the weathered hands of the army veteran as he delivers his living testimony. The hands speak, too, performing a different story than that which she is meant to be following.

One aspect of Songs From the North is Yoo corralling her own, somewhat ambivalent feelings on the place, ones that she probably shares with many South Koreans. “How do you explain it? It was a land of evil and yet as sacred as your mother’s womb.” Such extreme contradictions characterize the way they have been taught to view their neighbors over the border. On her travels she finds that a similar (albeit intensified) sentiment is felt by North Koreans, although she seems to have few opportunities to speak openly with them. There’s an unexpected note of identification with them as it appears to her that the feeling of nostalgia that she cites is not far off from that which the North Korean government uses as a key ingredient in propaganda. Whether serving nationalism or its negation, its origins remain common to people on both sides of the 38th parallel.

We outside of the country receive our myths just as they do, but theirs are the inverse of ours, with the US as the monster, South Korea and Japan now their tame puppets. Yoo grew up receiving all of her ideas of the North, and she seems to be traveling there to some extent to get her own take on the place, to plow through the thick levels of mediation. Perhaps any attempt to do that will be only partially successful, but the place exhibits candid moments, almost in spite of itself, on occasion. She grew up thinking that these people are strangers, perhaps with an innately different outlook, but that notion gets complicated by her experiences in the place.

Still from 'Songs From the North'Her ideas of their collective mentality, as well as the private inner-lives of the people are shaped both by the highly exaggerated images from North Korean media, and the furtive interactions and connections she shares with the people she meets. Her evolving notions of the country are played out through the contrast between performance and daily life, the effective image versus the emotional realities. In one video, Kim Il-sung leads some people in a rendition of a rather lachrymose folk song, and Yoo continues with the audio over the images of people she meets, as though the song were a current, sincerely and almost innocently running through their lives.

Although the film isn’t any sort of exposé of life in the DPRK, Yoo captures alarming sights of inequality. Workers kneel on the ground to scrub the bricks of a vast, immaculate plaza by hand. Again, the essential inequality isn’t what matters (for that exists, in various forms, everywhere) but the nuances of life as she encounters them there. “Is this the loneliest place on Earth?” she wonders. Songs From the North often summons a feeling of loneliness, and not always in the time-worn, political sense. She drops the viewer into ambiguous spaces, like an empty karaoke hall bellowing a sentimental tune about Kim Il-sung while a wide screen displays the lyrics over images of mountains.

She says that the essential North Korean narrative stems from the colonial period and war with Japan. The nation contextualizes itself, perpetually, in that horrible stretch of the mid-20th Century that resulted in the peninsula being divided. The Korean War functions as a genesis for the state. Earlier history doesn’t seem to be used for a reference point as much, although North Koreans refer to the entire peninsula (and, indeed, their own country) as Chosun, named after an ancient empire that ruled their contemporary region and Manchuria. In such a drastically narrowed context, the past becomes a lie. They’re isolated not only from the world right now, but from history itself, cut off and floating in a void of their own making. And there’s something sad about that, too.

Songs8In the snippets of media that Yoo picks up along the way there’s a running theme of orphaning, something that paves the way for the great leader – whoever that may be at the time – to stand in as “both mother and father” to the nation. One televised scene shows a boy tearfully recounting, to an audience of important officials, how his mother died and his father committed crimes against the nation. The other children standing around him on stage make a show of fighting back tears while even the men watching the performance try to appear misty-eyed. The pathos is so important, to prolong one’s display of ardent emotions beyond ordinary human capacity. It isn’t surprising that such a pitch of fervor – sadness, shame, redemption by the leader (who functions as everyone’s family) – is absorbed by the population, beyond its value for avoiding being denounced, as a real feeling. What Yoo finds looking at the people is more ordinary, though, something you could notice in any public park: a low-key sadness, possibly a slow-motion misery, a humming at the periphery.

Back in South Korea Yoo interviews her elderly father, who is of a generation of people with first-hand anecdotes relating to North Korea. He was also crucial in forming her identity and notions of the world, so talking to him can help get to the origins of those things. He talks about friends he had in his university days who became radical communists, in spite of privileged backgrounds, and went to fight for the North. When she asks what became of them, he says he never found out, but can’t imagine they survived. The purges that have taken place have claimed the lives of even the most ideologically zealous, not to mention members of the ruling Kim family. She asks him why he didn’t defect, possibly imagining an alternate life for herself north of the DMZ. His explanation is that his mother wouldn’t have survived if he’d left her behind. It’s a sensible, old-world answer, and probably quite true for the dire post-war years.

Yoo isn’t reporting, and so the things that she writes about the people and their situations tend to be subjective. North Koreans, she asserts, are obsessed with reunification. That same fixation isn’t shared by those in the South; it’s more a generalized wistfulness for what was, up until recently, shared history and culture, violently rent by war. In the North, it’s not always a positive hope, but at times a fear. She talks about how the urban elite worries about being killed off by a newly-liberated underclass in the event of a joining with the South. Although North Korean ideas of the United States and what it wants to do to them are plastered everywhere, sometimes in dramatic murals, the film does little in the way of political discourse, perhaps because it’s beyond the purview of what she would glean from ordinary citizens.

Songs7She asks her father his opinion on reunification, wondering if it is possible. A law professor, his answer is pragmatic, materialist: the North won’t ever be at a comparable economic level to be successfully merged with them. But Yoo seems more preoccupied with the ideological and cultural differences, the split in the shared fabric that gets pulled farther apart with each passing decade. It almost seems as though it’s what the people in the respective nations have been told about one another all these years as much as how their lives actually differ that creates this rift. On top of that, what passes for ideology and culture over there are largely taken up with valorizing the founding father, a figure whom South Koreans could care less about.

We aren’t treated to a film about how oppressive the state is, or how difficult life is for the people there. Anything trying to report on such things is inherently speculative, and can be part of the cavalcade of documentaries that seem aiming to titillate outside audiences with extreme difference. What Yoo creates, in contrast, is an exploration of her inherited perceptions, both about the North and about herself in relation to them. Insofar as those notions and images are manufactured – she offers – some dissolve or at least reform upon contact, while others are deepened or solidified. She doesn’t go so far as to investigate what makes this country the way it is. The experiences that the place and its people give her are too complex, too varied to lend themselves to generalities. No doubt, if it were to be taken further, she could question how her life has been different – South Korea has had its share of dictatorship, censorship, and corrupt hierarchy – but she stops, wisely, short at the basics of self-definition, and what feelings get stirred by her encounters with Northerners.

Yoo doesn’t use voice-over but on-screen text between shots. This gives her words the feeling of diary entries, the images (stitched together from different seasons and places) pages of a scrapbook. Throughout the film she poses intimate questions to the North, ones that wouldn’t be answered by the guarded smiles she meets with, and probably couldn’t be answered by anyone. They’re questions for her purposes only, a monologue to take her through the loneliness. There are those moments when she manages to break through the shy, self-censoring surfaces with which the people there present her. Like so many of the more striking images, those moments are fleeting, marginal. She looks at people through the glass of an aquarium or the gentle softening of a bus window.

At one point she asks her guide, Mr. Kang, if he is thinking about Kim Il-sung as they listen to a lone violinist playing in the pavilion of a public park. The man is obviously full of emotion that he can’t put into words. She catches many people in a similar moment, gazing off at nothing in particular, “each,” she says, “with their own private yearning.” Generally they look a bit embarrassed and ask why she’s filming so much. Perhaps that sadness for a departed father figure is an ingrained element common to all of them, a cultural creation that is nonetheless keenly felt, both collectively and privately. There may be nothing comparable in the outside world. That longing, continually reconstituted in movies, songs, and speeches, is something that binds them to one another and, in an indirect and little-acknowledged way, to her as well.

Songs1Yoo has talked about how, visiting a monument in the city of Hamhung, she was particularly taken with a group of middle school students that approached her. We see this in the film, as the children explore the monument and pose with her for a group portrait. One of them, a tall girl, seems to be inviting her some place for a visit. The off-screen voice of a man tells Yoo to tell the girl that they are too busy to stay, and so she tells the girl that she’ll be back, that she’ll see her again. And they leave, Yoo and her group going one way and the children another. It is an odd moment of direct connection in a heavily prescribed visit. Her promise, made amid the muted emotions of the moment, is to return. They may be going in different directions, but in one sense – and perhaps only a personal, individual sense – she has reunified with them, uncovering the bonds that were never broken to begin with.

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