The most deplorable element of The Interview wasn’t its gutlessly satirical depiction of North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, but its insidious suggestion that pop culture is something inherently American, belonging to the world as a gift from, in this case, the lips of Katy Perry. Perry’s track “Firework” is used as an ineluctable earworm of globalized capital and, fortunately for the film’s two dickheads turned spies, a means to weaponize incidental geographical privilege to fend off impending, dictatorial reign. It’s imperative, then, to understand Songs from the North, an essayistic documentary on the psychological history of North Korea, as an assertion of its own locality, where the titular “songs” aren’t simply melodious hymns of nationalistic devotion, though there are plenty offered, but mediated rhythms taken from multiple moments of films, ceremonies, or festivals, and emblematic of the country’s tortured vacillations between psychical strife and triumphal glory.
Director Soon-Mi Yoo chronicles three separate visits to North Korea over the course of several years, but Songs from the North has no internal narrative structure, refusing to tie its images to any singular person or perspective. Rather, as the title indicates by way of absence, North Korean culture is lensed in part through a South Korean perspective, with the final chapter asking: “Is reunification possible?” The film uses the query more as a rhetorical interrogative than a question of intent for further examination, but that shouldn’t suggest Yoo isn’t out for answers and solutions to a still gaping philosophical divide between the two nations. These often appear in either intertitles providing the director’s own perspective or moments from North Korean films, like when clips from 1989’s Traces of Life, a propagandistic melodrama about a woman’s unwavering devotion to the Workers’ Party of Korea, counter previous footage of various, seemingly harmless amusements, like acrobatics and roller coasters. The juxtapositions between settings construct North Korean cultural space as one simultaneously universal and anomalous, familiar but singular in its desire to instill emotionally governed, nationalistic states of mind.
Yet Yoo imparts how easily the collective body politic can slip into personal, private yearnings, where pain stems from memories of colonial suffering. In a particularly relevant scene, a group of children visit the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities, which is decorated with paintings and illustrations from alleged instances of torture and war crimes predominantly stemming from the Korean War. Just prior, Lt. General Edward Timberlake explains in archival footage circa 1948 how he can’t figure out “for the life of me” why the United States didn’t bomb Manchuria during World War II and how, equipped with atomic weapons, military forces could have gone north of the Yellow River and done “anything [they] wanted to.” Songs from the North makes constant references to the ways mapping and cartography inform matters of violence and action, such that the title itself implies a landscape where one land is literally stacked upon another. As such, the title’s kinship with Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor is instructive, since for Yoo and many of her film’s subjects, North and South Korea may as well be neighbors in housing, as one’s every footstep or rustling has detectable sensorial effects on the other. But, in this case, simply moving out isn’t an option.