Monday, September 14, 2015

Soon-Mi Yoo's SONGS FROM THE NORTH: Exploring North Korea--with the usual caveats

SONGS FROM THE NORTH indeed! You will not have seen in a long, long while a movie in which songs and singing play this large a part in the character of the land and its people (and its dictators and their power to brainwash). As the filmmaker, Soon-Mi Yoo, tells us via titles cards early on, "This longing all my life for a place I was not permitted to go until recently. How do you explain it? It was a land of evil and yet as sacred as your mother's womb." Wow. And just where is this fabled place? Ah: North Korea.

With this poetic opening, as well as via the combo of music, light show and space travel that actually begins her film, Ms Yoo (shown at left) has pretty well trashed most of The Interview, which was trash anyway (the part set in North Korea, at least; the early section of the movie was quite original and funny). The filmmaker was at last able to visit that strange, lopped-off land (Korea's official division took place in 1948) to the north of her birthplace in South Korea -- first in 2010, and then again in 2011 and 2012.

So: Has Ms Yoo been able to crack the facade and find out more about the enigma that has long been North Korea? After all, its dictator family has seen to it that the outside world stays out, while the populace inside remains thoroughly brainwashed into a rather frightening first-family fealty. And even when a representative or two from that outside world gets inside, they are faced with silence from the populace, no chance at asking questions or getting answers, and kept under strict control by the "guides" who accompany them everywhere. Ms Yoo tell us that that, as usual, she, too, was unable to ask probing questions.

In her Director's Statement in the press notes that we critics received, the filmmaker admits that she was unable to ask a single person the question she most wanted to: How do you manage to survive? (See Francine M. Storey's great poem, Instructions for Search to experience the full strength of that simple but profound question.) Instead, Ms Yoo had to look for answers in the footage she brought back of the people she'd photographed and also in the songs, publications, archival footage and examples of North Korean cinema she researched. "The longer I stared at the images, the longer I listened to their voices," she explains, "I no longer saw the propaganda. What remained were the beauty of their faces and the melodies of the songs which carried a genuine emotion that I found consoling."

Well, I'm sorry, but I found all this pretty paltry, offering little more than I've seen before in the few docs to have come out of North Korea. And while her images are often poetic, I find Ms Yoo's explanation more sentimental than anything else. When she adds that she has come to understand that these are people who would rather die than be humiliated and subjugated, we are again pulled up short. Plenty of North Koreans have already died, but those left are surely subjugated still, and might very well be humiliated, were they not brainwashed into constantly singing about how they revere their great leader.

If this sounds like a dyed-in-the-wool Capitalist speaking, let me demolish that idea completely. I have no love for Capitalism as it has been practiced in the USA or most of the western world, but I am not a Communist, either, since no country has ever been able to make that philosophy work in practice. (I'm a Socialist, sure, but who in his right mind in these days of ever-expanding inequality would not be?)

So much of what we see in this film looks like "planned hagiography," beginning with footage of the populace, grieving at the death of their great leader. Ms Yoo's camera concentrates for quite a spell on a seemingly grieving male citizen, above (maybe her guide), who is saddened --- but by what?. He won't say so we never know. The most interesting part of the film is her interview with her father (he's a South Korean and thus allowed to speak), who tells us of the history of his family, friends and country.

Visually, we move from pools hall to skyscraper, while mostly concentrating on the faces and voices of the people. The little real information we get comes via more title cards that tell us things such as, "For the North Korean elite, Germany is a cautionary tale. Above all, they want to know what happened to their East German counterparts." For good reason, too, as the East Germans have now been pretty much swallowed up by West Germany and its preoccupations, just as North Korea would surely be, once North and South eventuallly reunite.

Our filmmaker is told that she is "filming too long," or simply asked to "Go away" or "Get out of here." The archival footage she finds seems to make clear that the west's two most important "gifts" to the east, so far as North Korea is concerned, have been movies and nuclear testing. Toward the end we watch what looks like a school program being performed for officials and full of song and tears and propaganda -- all at the service of the state.

Songs From the North is a highly personal movie, for which Ms Yoo did the writing, directing, cinematography and editing. Whether or not it will translate to you is questionable, I think. It worked for me only in fits and starts, and even then, what it left me thinking and feeling seems to go counter to what the filmmaker herself thought and felt. You can sympathize, maybe even empathize with these North Koreans, certainly. But getting a clue to what might be going through their minds?
Sorry. No can do.

The documentary, from Kino Lorber, opens this coming Friday, September 18, in New York at Anthology Film Archives and in Los Angeles at RedCat on November 23.

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