Songs From the North Depicts North Korea in an Approachable Light


In Songs From the North, the South Korean–born, U.S.-based filmmaker Soon-Mi Yoo takes her camera to North Korea and, through a purposeful mix of on-location footage, poetic intertitles (“Is North Korea the loneliest place on Earth?”), and archival media, creates an empathetic snapshot of a country that is almost never depicted in such an accessible light.

Indeed, Yoo’s emphasis on capturing the everyday in this heavily censored state is so rare and extraordinary that her subjects can’t help but comment on it: “You really are filming everything!” a man says as a long take lingers on his teary-eyed face. Later, a woman asks, “Of all things, why film me cleaning?” and Yoo’s response to an offscreen spectator — “Isn’t she pretty?” — betrays her heartfelt investment in the human faces she documents. Yoo’s main interview subject is her father, to whom Songs is dedicated. (The camera has a lively back-and-forth rapport with him: Whenever he leans forward or backward, Yoo has to adjust the focus.)

But the film is enriched by Yoo’s juxtaposition of these contemporary faces with media from the past. North Korean movies (1968’s Sea of Blood, 1987’s Bellflower, 1989’s Traces of Life) and television broadcasts of theater performances trace a history of propaganda designed to inspire bone-deep loyalty and cement the Kims as irrefutably compassionate parental figures. It’s representative of Yoo’s complex approach that a patently manipulative propaganda piece of children on a stage weeping and singing of their devotion (“Truly, my father, my mother, is my dear Marshal Kim Jong Un!”) comes across as stunningly emotional, the performers’ wailing voices — not to mention the waterworks in the audience — registering as profoundly strange, immediate, and real.

Songs, which screens as the opening-night selection at this year’s Migrating Forms, will be followed by a night of short works from the impressive video artist Rachel Rose, including A Minute Ago, which opens with a two-minute glimpse of an out-of-nowhere hailstorm, and Sitting Feeding Sleeping, which looks at animals in various states of captivity and decay. These videos are linked by an aggressive montage sensibility, fusing different forms of media with a mysterious, engrossing soundscape. (The opening noises of Sitting are still playing on a loop in my head.)