'Songs From the North': Locarno Review

Courtesy of Festival del film Locarno
Glimpses of life and culture above the 38th parallel exert their usual bizarre fascination

Soon-mi Yoo's documentary on North Korea was named Best Debut at Switzerland's long-established festival

As the world's current pariah state par excellence, North Korea has for obvious reasons proven powerful catnip for documentarists over the years, with Soon-mi Yoo's Songs From the North the latest example. Adopting a tricky perspective that's at once first-person and detached, the South Korean-born director assembles a collage of interviews, TV and film extracts, plus her own semi-undercover reportage shot north of the 38th parallel.

The result is a sometimes ungainly but ultimately effective primer on the culture, atmosphere and recent history of the planet's most secretive nation. As such the Portugal-USA-South Korea production will be of significant interest to programmers and buyers specializing in human-rights fare, although those seeking polemical indictments of brutalities and oppression will be disappointed. The kudos of landing the Best Debut prize at Locarno, a gong encompassing all of the festival's numerous sections, will further boost international prospects for a picture which balances the stranger-than-fiction outré with moments of genuine emotional impact.

Writer/director/editor/cinematographer/co-producer Yoo, who alongside veteran cine-radicals Jon Jost, John Gianvito and Travis Wilkerson contributed to portmanteau polemic Far From Afghanistan (2012), dedicates the project to father Yoo Young-choon. The dignified elder's close-up comments to camera provide Songs From the North with a sustaining backbone of informed opinion and memory. Growing up in the relative freedom of the South (which was itself under authoritarian rule until 1987), the film-maker developed a complex relationship with what which she describes, via silent on-screen caption, as "a land of evil and yet sacred as your mother's womb".

Songs From the North includes material shot during three tourist-visa visits to Pyongyang and the surrounding areas, allowing viewers to observe quotidian goings-on in a nation seemingly geared around grand displays of pageantry and festivity. Candid "back-stage" catch reveal North Korean workers in apparently unguarded moments, but Yoo doesn't capture any evidence of particular misery, starvation or even dissatisfaction. From time to time she encounters school-children who seem as cheerful and energetic as any of their counterparts in, say, Massachusetts (where she teaches).

These sections raise awkward questions: are the kids affluent offspring of Communist Party cadres, and thus unrepresentative of the wider population? Are we seeing sad evidence of insidious brainwashing? Or might it be that our image of North Korea, filtered as it is through external news sources and unambiguously hostile political ideologies, is itself to some degree a distortion?

Propaganda, of course, cuts both ways, and the film is a compelling, often entertaining compendium of North Korea's elaborately paranoid world-view, particularly when Yoo visits the garish Museum of American Atrocities, with its gory dioramas illustrating the Yankees' nefarious role in the 1950-53 civil war. Clips from state-funded patriotic epics are interpolated among small-screen broadcasts in which lachrymose displays of affection towards North Korean leaders — post-war big cheese
Kim Il-sung, Team America baddie Kim Jong-il and the reigning, dramatically-coiffed head-honcho Kim Jong-un— counterpoint spectacular choreography alongside rousing military bombast.

Working as her own editor, Yoo doesn't always give the impression of having the strongest of handles on her disparate material: when one of her subjects remarks "You are filming too long!" it's easy to see where he's coming from. But while future enterprises may benefit from at least a collaboration with a co-editor not so intimately bound up with the chosen subject-matter,
Songs From the North derives energy and sustains interest partly because of the sheer range of footage on display. When gazing at such a cockeyed social-historical-cultural-anthropological landscape, jagged kaleidoscopes may sometimes yield 20-20 vision.

Production companies: Rosa Filmes
Director/Screenwriter/Cinematographer/Editor: Soon-mi Yoo
Producers: Rui Alexandre Santos, Soon-mi Yoo, Haden Guest
Sound: Chu-li Shewring, Nuno Henrique
Sales: Rosa Filmes, Lisbon, Portugal

No Rating, 72 minutes