Chances are, when you think of North Korea, particularly in today’s political climate, you don’t think of art, or of beauty. But just because the hermit nation is a country of brainwashed saps (as any of your Fox News-watching friends will gladly tell you without a trace of irony) it doesn’t mean they’re incapable of producing just that. Art. Beauty.
Songs From The North is a fascinating film. It’s very simple. Very elegant. Profoundly moving. And, indeed, are the various North Korean songs we hear throughout the film.
It’s also very personal. The director, Yoo Soon-Mi, is originally from South Korea but now lives in America. Part of her wanting to explore North Korea is to learn about her cultural heritage. About the divide between North and South Korea. In that sense, the songs are not just touching, but seductive, sirens calling her to her ancestral homeland of sorts.
The film itself is a compilation of various sources: contemporary footage of the country Yoo obtained on vacation there, songs from the country performed on stage or in films, newsreel footage, propaganda videos, and interviews with Yoo’s father, who still lives in South Korea.
She asks him to tell her about his past – about the US-Korean war, about his friends that went North when their country was arbitrarily divided in two, about why the North’s vision of a communist utopia failed. The idea of what could have been lingers large. The songs are seductive and enchanting. But the reality, as we all know, is far grimmer.
The landscapes we witness here, too, are very beautiful. Landscapes most of us will never experience in person. Unlike the poor saps that live there. There are several interesting, very different views, that we are given of people that live there. There is the disarmingly normal sight of a clock with recognizable numbers on the wall, two friends playing pool, a cluster of school children waiting in the snow – telling Yoo to move along and stop filming them, a scene right out of The Walking Dead of people sitting or walking along a desolate stretch of woodland road.
These people are hiding something. To say they’re merely brainwashed is far too simplistic. Life within a fascist dictatorship is significantly more complex. They’re guarded. Scared, perhaps, of being seen acting in a way they know they shouldn’t?
Most of what we see is very normal, familiar, human behavior. They wear masks just as we wear masks. But still waters run deep, and there is clearly great emotion behind their veils.
Early on the film, Yoo films her tour guide as he is lost in some emotion as he hears a song play. He tries to hide his tears and has no desire to explain the context of his emotions to her. This is mirrored, perversely, in a performance at the end of the play in which a 10-year-old delivers an exaggerated, melodramatic, overwrought speech about how he feels so blessed that the great leader doesn’t hold a grudge against him because of his traitorous father’s actions. It is truly a sight to behold.
But he’s not the only one putting on a good show. So, too, are the dignitaries in the audience. Wiping away tears as they watch. Likely they wear masks too. A different sort, to befit their station in their crazy world. Or maybe they don’t. For as fake as the emotions portrayed in that scene must surely have been, it remained, undeniably moving.
In public, at least, this seems to be a country based on a cult of fear. But as the film demonstrates on numerous occasions, even this seemingly blatant propaganda can be quite powerful and even moving when it intersects with art.
One of the most powerful examples of that is a clip from, I believe, a 1987 North Korean feature, titled A Bellflower. Though the film is described as a propaganda piece that “praises the spirit of workers who accept their roles and work for the betterment of the nation,” the clip itself would feel at home in any 1960’s Hollywood technicolor musical. The Sound Of Music in particular came to mind.
In the clip, two women pull a large tree trunk across the snowy mountaintop as a song plays. Its lyrics via subtitles: “Striking root in deep mountains, The flower blooms, not for show; To bring a new spring to my native home.” And it really was quite moving.
I think that says it all, quite frankly. For while we try not to think too much about what might possibly lie ahead for all of this in this world with things as they currently are, assuming the status quo continues, Songs Of The North is evidence at least that art and beauty are capable of thriving even amidst everything else that North Korea is and does. And so, it must be true for the rest of the world too.
After the film finished, and I sat there, watching the credits, a quote came to mind from Steven Soderbergh, who, when he won an Oscar several years ago, devoted part of his acceptance speech to thank “Anyone who spends part of their day creating. Anybody who spends part of their day sharing their experience with us. I think this world would be unlivable without art and I thank you.”