Songs from the North Screen 13 articles

Songs from the North

2014

Songs from the North Poster
  • I found myself falling into the film’s rhythms and experiencing the collective weight of its images just as Songs from the North ended. But the film is both too much and too little; there are too many voices (I understand why Yoo includes the interview with her father but it breaks the film’s form) and too few images (I can’t not compare the experience of watching this film to Andrei Ujica’s three-hour The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu[2010]).

  • Sensitively structured and emotionally complex, the film balances the personal and the political, offering a welcome corrective to the often cartoonish and condescending characterization of North Koreans by US media.

  • While in no way softening the all-encompassing propaganda state of three generations of Great Leader Kims, Songs From the North also displays a rare audacity, showing certain aspects of North Korean life as perfectly normal. The genuine desires of ordinary people (above all for reunification) are explored with the utmost respect.

  • In Songs From the North, director Soon-Mi Yoo has created over the course of three visits to North Korea a diary film that gives the viewer an invaluable, albeit brief and obstructed, view into another world... The result is an increasingly ambiguous, incomplete portrait of an unknowable place, with an entirely different system of meaning, that contradicts the very way we look at the world.

  • Some of the more fascinating statements she makes, especially about the desire of the North Korean people to reunite with the South, offer promising glimpses into a culture we know little about. If this is only the first in a series of essay films Yoo can produce, she may evolve into one of the most essential voices in world cinema.

  • As Yoo catalogues these mind-melting examples of state-directed spectacle, she plays them off of footage and interviews taken from her three separate trips to the hermit regime, ruminating on how both North and South Koreans have internalized their history (or not). Songs from the North is a work of sobriety, handily avoiding or exploding the rampant Western stereotypes (sure to be re-lit by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen's The Interview).

  • "Is North Korea the loneliest place on Earth?" reads a title card appearing after one of the hotel-window shots. "A country without friends, without history. Only myths repeated endlessly from morning to night." That's a grim assessment, but one strength of Songs is that Yoo takes those myths seriously and tries to understand their power.

  • Songs From the North differs from most of its predecessors insofar as it's from the perspective of a South Korean, Soon-Mi Yoo, whose foray into the DPRK is as personal as it is political. The film employs some of the guerrilla approach typical of such endeavors, but the fact that Yoo isn't regarded as an outsider by the people she's recording allows her to capture a number of revealing, unrehearsed moments that startle in their raw emotion.

  • It's imperative to understand Songs from the North, an essayistic documentary on the psychological history of North Korea, as an assertion of its own locality, where the titular “songs” aren't simply melodious hymns of nationalistic devotion, though there are plenty offered, but mediated rhythms taken from multiple moments of films, ceremonies, or festivals, and emblematic of the country's tortured vacillations between psychical strife and triumphal glory.

  • Yoo’s arrangement of her material, intuitive but ever attuned to subtleties both political and emotional, remains something of a marvel throughout—especially since she manages to make the most of a travelogue that’s not always very penetrating.

  • Yoo’s candid camera glimpses really do amount to little more than watching the state mask drop for minuscule amounts of time. For ideological inquiry, I’d prefer Finn, but as someone fascinated by North Korea I found the film inevitably fascinating (which is not to say it hasn’t been assembled with essayistic elegance on its own terms).

  • Along with cannily chosen movie and television clips and interviews with her own father, Soon-Mi searches for hidden truths in the cracks of state-sanctioned tours. She finds at least one great one, via a long take in which sentimental patriotic music echoes out of tinny loudspeakers while frigid citizens silently trudge across a snow-covered lot.

  • [Songs from the North] 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

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