February 20, 2017

Songs from the North: A Scrapbook Documentary

Most documentaries about North Korea aim to be exposés as each director craftily digs behind the country's official façade. Sometimes they work; sometimes they don't. But indie director Yoon Soo-mi makes no such concerted effort. She accepts the communist nation more or less as it presents itself to her while playing tourist over a few trips. (Admittedly, she keeps the camera running sometimes when told not to.) What she gets by doing so is a film that feels free from a political agenda yet equally strange. For what would a tourist see here in the "Democratic People's Republic" where even what's normal is decidedly odd?

Well, there's the Sichon Museum of American Atrocities, a musical revue with a chorus of uniformed children singing about the launch of a satellite, various gargantuan sculptures of the supreme leaders past and present, a snippet from movies like Traces of Life which concerns the reunification of the two Koreas, and views of a snowy landscape which the director realizes she's seen before via some archival reel of American troops bombing it during the war. Occasionally, there are also just shorts of the faces of the (universally skinny) people whom she's met for what is a country but its people?

The informality with which Yoon presents her video footage allows you to appreciate the periodic strangeness, unfiltered. Does anyone really need to be reminded how manipulative it is to have a child crying onstage while confessing his father's betrayal to the state and proclaiming his love for his country's leaders? Or the utter absurdity of a smiling woman pulling a giant log in the snow as a symbol of Making Korea Great Again? Given the very personal nature of Yoon's travelogue, the inclusion of interviews with her dad and some short personal reflections of her own fit right in. "Is North Korea the loneliest place on earth?" "Do you even hear the loudspeakers anymore?" Valid questions which we should feel free to answer ourselves.