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November 16, 2014

Songs from the North by Soon-Mi Yoo

Best known for her lyrical and astute short-form essay films, South Korean-born and Cambridge-based artist Soon-Mi Yoo made her feature film debut with her most ambitious and complexly structured film to date, Songs from the North, winner of the the prestigious Golden Leopard for Best First Feature at the 2014 Locarno Film Festival.  Songs from the North is an essay film which looks differently at the enigma of North Korea, a country typically seen only through the distorted lens of jingoistic propaganda and derisive satire. Interweaving images from her three visits to North Korea together with songs, spectacle, popular cinema and archival footage, Songs from the North tries to understand, on their own terms, the psychology and popular imagination of the North Korean people and the political ideology of absolute love which continues to drive the nation towards its uncertain future. Yoo’s sincere desire to look closely and objectively at North Korea gives a rare charge and emotion to her remarkable footage of intimate, everyday scenes as well as her poetic inter-titles and an extended interview with her father. To sincerely consider this country that challenges our most fundamental assumptions about the human condition is, Yoo argues, ultimately to question the meaning of freedom, love and patriotism.– Haden Guest

Special thanks: Carter Eckert, Susan Laurence and Jina Kim—the Korea Institute, Harvard.

$12 Special Event Tickets
Soon-Mi Yoo in person

Sunday November 16 at 7pm

Songs from the North

Directed by Soon-Mi Yoo
US/South Korea/Portugal 2014, DCP, color & b/w, 72 min. English and Korean with English subtitles

Our Deepest Wish is Reunification was a popular children's song when I was growing up in Seoul, South Korea. Reunification occupied a large part of public and private discourse. The separation between North and South was considered unnatural, as if a living being had been severed in half. The pain felt by Koreans was real, not imagined. Reunification was considered the only remedy, a destiny.

When I finally was able to travel to North Korea in December 2010 I crossed the Tumen River, the border with China, where a North Korean guide met me at customs and accompanied me in a state-run taxi. Night was falling as we crossed over a snowy mountain range. I remember my surprise to see people walking in the dark alongside the road, briefly glimpsed in the headlights as we drove past. I wondered how they were able to find their way in complete darkness. It was the coldest winter in thirty years on the Korean Peninsula. Some people carried bundles of kindling, gathered in wooden A-frames on their back. Another was dragging a tree trunk. The next morning I looked out my hotel window in Rajin City and saw people running from the cold. I wanted to ask them, "How do you manage to survive?"

Because of the tight control of the North Korean “guides" I was not able to travel or photograph freely. But I was able to film fleeting moments and encounters in between. I was deeply moved by the grace and dignity of the North Koreans I met during that trip and during my two subsequent visits in the summers of 2011 and 2012.

I was never able to ask my question to any North Koreans. Instead I had to look for answers in the footage I brought back and in the North Korean material—songs, cinema, spectacle, publications—that I researched. The longer I stared at the images, the longer I listened to their voices, I no longer saw the propaganda. What remained were the beauty of their faces, and the melodies of the songs which carried a genuine emotion that I found consoling. I began to understand that perhaps this is how they manage to survive. I also came to understand that these are people who would rather die than be humiliated and subjugated. And so they continue, walking in the dark, and maybe humming one of those patriotic songs that I heard everywhere throughout my travels in North Korea.

Soon-Mi Yoo Lisbon, July 2014

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