Nuance to the North Korea narrative

Soon-Mi Yoo is tired of the conventional western narrative surrounding North Korea. She’s had it with the “satiric and, frankly, racist takes” that “use North Korea as kind of a cheap joke,” and the winking, “kind of dishonest,” news coverage. “Their brief exchange in North Korea confirms their idea that these people are brainwashed. …So I felt a little bit responsible.”

This sense of responsibility led to “Songs From The North”, the Cambridge, Mass.-based Korean filmmaker’s first feature length work. It is an unconventional and deeply personal essay film determined to bring insight and nuance to the narrative of North Korea and its people. In order to achieve this, Yoo recently traveled to North Korea three times to film, and the footage she shot there comprises a large portion of the movie.

“Initially, my first and second trips, I was invited, quote unquote, or brought in, by somebody who had a very good relationship with the regime,” she discloses. She found it difficult to shoot much beyond the designated tourist sites, though, because minders were watching her. “At the end of my third trip I realized that no matter how many times I go back, I would only accumulate a tiny bit of the material that I’d be actually satisfied with,” she says, also noting the air of oppression and paranoia that managed to surprise her when faced with it firsthand. Despite this, she managed to capture landscapes not approved by her minders and stolen moments with average North Koreans.

“In a way, North Korean fictions are like documentaries, and so-called North Korean documentaries are more like fiction,” she observes. Though she recognizes how well the regime manipulates the media, and the propagandistic nature of this art, she says she “found them to be, a lot of times, very moving” in their genuine emotion — especially the titular revolutionary songs. She cites, for instance, a striking scene in the film, where she observed people plodding along in the -26 degree cold while propagandist songs played over loudspeakers, and realized how this “entertainment” could almost function as a coping mechanism.

“At first I thought it was just terrible, you know this kind of propaganda, just — you cannot escape it, right? You know, you’re out in the open and there is this loudspeaker blaring about … ‘dear leaders,’ ” she recalls. “It would drive us crazy, you know? And it did drive me crazy. But then I realized, ‘Actually, maybe it’s better than having to just walk in the cold without anything,’ ” she concludes.

With “Songs From The North,” Yoo provides audiences with a rare opportunity to … better actually understand the people of North Korea.

[The Villager (New York)]

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