May 20, 2018

Song of Retrospection: Composition Class

The North Korean film industry has definitely developed a number of tropes since its politicized inception: The underestimated female leader, the stern and demanding coach, the soulless Yankee pig, the accordion-playing Everyman... And you will find quite a number of them in Song of Retrospection, director Ryu Ho-sun's formulaic and patriotic movie about one European composer (of Asian descent) who, through at least two pairs of corny eyeglasses, sees the wisdom, strength, and compassion of the North Korean people while a prisoner of war held captive by a female soldier who also happens to write music and speak English. Her song, in fact, becomes somewhat of an obsession for him after he hears her sing it (while accompanying herself on the accordion, of course) to an all-male squadron of her fellow soldiers on the front lines during the Korean War. These enlisted men are never too busy for a singalong! You might start to think that North Korean soldiers have but two states of being: hurt and happy.

Eventually, the composer (nationality unknown, probably not American, though his name is Komak) tracks down his humble muse at an international youth music festival being held in Berlin. (These scenes are a weird mix of archival footage from the era and sepia-tinted sequences in which North Koreans sometimes wear blond wigs when representing Caucasians.) There, at the German festival, she gives him her one page of sheet music with which he apparently becomes so engrossed that he eventually builds a whole symphony around it. It's not a bad song, mind you, but it works better when sung by a single voice simply accompanied then when it's provided a full orchestration. Gone is his dream of creating a victory march on commission from the United Nations. His muse is now the Great Leader. He feels strongly about it so why resent that? What I do resent are the fake mustache the protagonist has glued to his face for a good portion of the movie as well as the powdered hair atop any character who we're supposed to believe has aged. The 2010s are clearly not the Golden Age for North Korean cinema. Nor is it, despite the odd wigs which argue to the contrary, the Silver Age either.