You should be forewarned: South Korean-born, US-based self-defined "film essayist" Soon-mi Yoo is not trying to cash in on the ever-present fascination with the secretive, isolated pariah state of North Korea. Songs from the North is no hard-hitting exposé, nor does it seek any sort of definitive truth on the subject. She is much more interested, and genuinely so, in the country itself and in the people who live there, and in the chasm that self-evidently lies between personal reality and collective rhetoric in a place where individualism is permanently subsumed into groupthink and devotion to the Kim dynasty.
Over the course of her brief, slight "poetic essay", Ms. Yoo strives to capture unguarded moments of North Koreans in the carefully managed group tours and arranged photo opportunities she ran into during three separate visits, as if she's trying to understand how much of "us" we can see in "them". Songs from the North asks more questions that it really wants to answer, preferring to let them hang there, unanswered, over the footage the director has tantalizingly assembled. Part of it is material shot during her trips, and there are Aldo excerpts of an interview with her own father talking about the heady days of the Korean War and the country's carving, but most of the short running time is taken with a deftly researched wealth of archival material. Much of that comes from North Korean film, ceremonies and stage spectaculars, staggering in their openly propagandistic tone and heavily old-fashioned melodrama.
By shifting between the three modes of footage, Ms. Yoo creates a kaleidoscope whose connecting thread is a strange nostalgia of an idealized, pre-separation past, as manifested in the sweepingly romantic popular songs (many of which composed by the country's founder Kim Il Sung) that serve as the film's motif and title. If the director didn't necessarily mean for her gently kaleidoscopic assemblage to offer any sort of answer or explanation, neither does it really shed light on that "other" she wants to find "us" in. Her decision to avoid any sort of voiceover, replacing it with discrete title cards, seems to be entirely in tune with the film's realization that there's enough going on in the footage that nothing more is necessary, but at the same time it creates a rational, analytical distance from it that keeps the viewer at a remove, unable to truly connect with what is being shown.
Wafting with the breeze or the tide without truly aiming for a specific arrival point, letting the wind carry it so to speak, Songs from the North becomes a sort of unfinished quilt where you can notice traces of the underlying design before wondering what led its artisan to change direction. A cabinet of curiosities, if you will, that unveils some of what is going on in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea but makes you none the wiser as to what it all means. Not that you could, of course.
SONGS FROM THE NORTH
US, Portugal, 2014
Director, screenwriter, cinematographer and editor Soon-mi Yoo; producers Ms. Yoo and Haden Guest; production company Rosa Filmes
Screened August 8th, 2014, La Sala, Locarno (Locarno Film Festival Cineasti del Presente official screening) and August 20th, 2015, Lisbon (distributor screener)
Songs From the North, a film by Soon-Mi Yoo - Trailer from Rosa Filmes on Vimeo.