The documentary “Songs from the North” is a fascinating experimental film contrasting scenes from North Korean movies, theater, state media and everyday life to paint a more vivid picture of the notorious hermit nation. The film doesn’t have a narrative of any kind; it’s essentially a distilled hour-long collection of footage the South Korean director Soon-Mi Yoo shot on three different trips she took took to North Korea. And yet the way she weaves in selections from movies and live performances illuminates the psyche of a country so blocked off from the world.
The documentary has several moments that are incredibly raw and must be seen to be believed. In one scene, Yoo records a Korean War veteran speaking to children at the Shinchon Museum of American Atrocities, describing incredibly inhumane conditions he endured as a prisoner of war under American control. He concludes by unapologetically defending his absolute hatred towards Americans to children. No amount of satire like “The Interview” would be able get at the root of North Korean aggression towards the United States like this. The North Koreans interviewed in the documentary are unflinching when describing their complete loyalty to their country. Having only heard the stories of grateful defectors, seeing the faces of those who maintain North Korea’s tense position in world affairs is shocking.
And yet the humanity of individual North Koreans is vividly captured here as well. Such small moments as schoolchildren smiling and waving to the camera as they walk past, or a restaurant owner getting flustered after Yoo tells her she’s pretty, makes North Korea feel like any other place in the world, despite how closed-off it is. The fact that Yoo is South Korean noticeably helps the dialogue feel like natural conversation, and less like an intrusive window into their mysterious culture.
The public opinion expressed by North Koreans is supplemented by scenes of daily life in film, live performances and state propaganda that explicitly play out the hostile attitudes the DPRK’s government holds to this day. However, it quickly becomes apparent that every aspect of North Korean life ties back to propaganda. It’s incredibly nauseating – there’s not a single orderly school building or pristine yet barren temple without pictures of former supreme leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il front and center. The way North Korean art is juxtaposed with interviews with North Koreans brilliantly illustrates the cause-and-effect relationship between the deeply nationalistic messages conveyed in the media and the loyalty the citizens express to the perceived well-being of their country.
The most vivid patriot in the documentary is a middle school boy who passionately sobs as he speaks to an assembly after being selected as a representative for his school at a government function in Pyongyang. As if it wasn’t eerie enough watching North Koreans tear up just looking at imagery of Kim Il-sung, the little boy goes on to declare Kim Jong-il his real “father and mother” who loves and protects him when his parents do not after he was informed the President bestowed love onto him “endlessly.”
To be sure, this was the most hysterical display of devotion to the ruling family in the film. But the spooky domination the DPRK has over the collective North Korean psyche is made tangible after watching the country’s art extol the same values the boy expresses.
“Songs from the North” is not only chock-full of information on North Korean art, but its cinematography is lovely as well. The traditional architecture of North Korea is consistently framed by the lush, green nature abundant around Pyongyang, making the country look like somewhere you could actually call home in spite of the known harsh standards of living.
The subjects are always placed in such a way that brings the viewer’s eyes across their surroundings, setting them off-center or enveloped within their location to artfully capture the context of their scenes. There are no “talking heads” here, just a taste of North Korean public opinion straight from the source. And the crisp, vivid coloring breathes life into the people and their daily jobs. This keeps the indifferent nature of some people interviewed, saying things like “Why film me cleaning?” or “You are filming too long!” from feeling unconducive to the film’s topic. With Kim Jong-un dominating headlines regularly, it is jarringly humanizing to see the faces and hear some of the voices of countless regular people who make up the country. The fact that such normal people can have their worldview so radically controlled by their government is thought-provoking in the highest.
The documentary does a fantastic job getting as close as possible to North Korea to see the country on its own terms. In spite of its experimental form, the film logically charges through almost the entirety of North Korean history with raw emotion from all directions – by actual citizens and artists’ interpretations of them. Yoo’s contribution to the limited amount of footage capturing North Korea from an outsider’s perspective is one to be treasured.