With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Saturday, September 19, 2015

SONGS FROM THE NORTH reviewed; now playing at New York's Anthology Film Archives

Kino Lorber
Songs From The North
Written and directed by Soon-Mi Yoo
Produced by Soon-Mi Yoo and Harvard Film Archive's Haden Guest
Country: South Korea/Portugal/U.S., 2014, 73 minutes
Language: Korean with English subtitles

Winner of Golden Leopard for Best First Feature, Locarno Film Festival

Songs From The North is a documentary from director Soon-Mi Yoo, who was born in South Korea and emigrated to the U.S. in 1990. It opened yesterday at Anthology Film Archives in NYC.

The film deftly interweaves footage from three trips took to North Korea with snippets of films and archival footage from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPKR, or North Korea) and, to a much lesser extent, the U.S. National Archive. The film attempts to, and to a considerable extent succeeds in, portraying the reasons for how and why North Koreans -- both party officials and "regular" people -- feel as they do about their country, "to understand the psychology and popular imagery of the North Korean people."

According to Yoo, all North Korean narratives stem from the memory of colonial suffering under the Japanese and the armed struggle for independence. Hence the numerous propaganda films and songs. Attention is given to the three generations of North Korean's supreme leader: Kim Il Sung, his son Kimg Jong Il and grandson Kim Jong Un, the country's current leader. One treat is Kim Il Sung, also known as Suryungnim, singing an old folk song.

Yoo also indicates that North Koreans, unlike their counterpart in the South, are obsessed with reunification. This poses a particular problem for the North's elite technocrats, who fear what their fate will be if their country is absorbed by the South; they expect either internment in camps or execution.

The film also features the director interviewing her father, Yoo Young-Choon, to whom the film is dedicated. The father is, or at least was, a firm leftist, if not an outright Communist or Communist sympathizer. Most telling is his matter-of-fact acknowledgement that friends from his youth who went to live in the north were almost certainly executed at some point as suspected agents from the South during the various brutal purges that stemmed from internal power struggles. In his view, North Korea deviated from Communism when it became almost exclusively concerned with political  matters and not with correctly dealing with economic issues.

The bent-over figures in the distant center of the image are sweeping the walkway

The image of North Korea that emerges is one of bleakness, "possibly the loneliest place on earth, where only myths are endlessly repeated morning to night." With only one exception, a young woman who responds to a comment made by the director who is filming her, the adults shown never smile. Only children, who have not yet totally lost their innocence, smile and wave to the director and her camera. It is also in the children what one sees some color in their clothing, the dark pant and skirts, light shirts, and red handkerchiefs of their school clothing and some of their normal everyday wear.

Mr. Kang

The documentary's main weakness, as I see it, is its frequent lack of identifying information. Rarely are we told just where we are or what we're looking at. For example, who is the Mr. Kang seen early in the film and who seems on the verge of tears. Is he one of Yoo's "comrade guides" or just a citizen she has encountered? And just where is the bus going when Yoo is told by a female comrade guide, "No pictures from th bus"? Where are the various streets in which few vehicles can be seen? In Pyongyang, the country's capital, or elsewhere? These are things that would be useful to know, to put the images in clearer context.

Still, the overall picture of North Korea that emerges is a relatively clear one, and one that is quite informative and immensely fascinating.

AsianCineFest Rating: 3 out of 4 stars; a good film. Songs From The North is most definitely well-worth seeing.

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