Soon-Mi Yoo by Paul Dallas

In her new film, Songs From the North, Soon-Mi Yoo mines the land of memory, and the dormant conflicts and sorrows that bind the people of North and South Korea.

BOMB 131 Spring 2015
BOMB 131
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Still from Songs From the North, 2014. Cinematography and direction by Soon-Mi Yoo. Produced by Soon-Mi Yoo and Haden Guest. Co-producer Rui Alexandre Santos, Rosa Filmes, Portugal.

Two figures dangle from a floating ring, their bodies entwined against a black void, their silhouettes multiplied by spotlights. Music swells on a loudspeaker, and the handheld camera zooms in uncertainly. One figure clings to the other’s outstretched arm, and just as the body plummets, the scene cuts away.

We witness the performance at a distance and without context, making the opening moments of Soon-Mi Yoo’s Songs From The North all the more disorienting. Later, we find ourselves experiencing an inverse perspective—peering down from high above an amusement park at night. The fixed camera begins to quake, and suddenly we realize that the person holding the camera is not on solid ground, but on a ride that is about to plunge downward.

This tension between air and ground, between distance and proximity, is a prevailing motif in Yoo’s powerful documentary portrait of North Korea. An assemblage of archival material and personal video, Yoo’s film examines the legacy of political history as refracted through a poetic lens, and offers a fascinating tour through the nation’s physical and psychic geography. Save for brief inter-titles, Yoo eschews commentary, and allows footage to speak for itself. Her collage interweaves state-sanctioned newscasts, film clips, national spectacles, and war footage into a series of uncanny cross-historical connections. At times, it feels as if it’s working on a near-subliminal level. The handheld video of the aerial acrobatics rhymes, retrospectively, with archival footage of another, very different, aerial performance we witness later in the film—namely, US aircraft bombing North Korea.

The footage shot by the director during several trips to North Korea is perhaps the film’s most affecting imagery. It captures what life there actually feels like today, its emotional textures. We see people playing pool, hanging out in a mall. There are glimpses of poverty and militarization. But Yoo doesn’t highlight the discrepancies between the lives of private citizens and its image as expressed in the government’s hallucinatory spectacles and hyperbolic narratives. Rather, she is concerned with the way personal memory and collective history continually overlap. What does it mean to confront the past on a daily basis? The film’s poignant soundtrack of national songs—”Ariyang,” “Nostalgia,” and “Where Are You, Dear General?” to name a few—becomes the tissue connecting not only past and present, but insider and outsider. By the end, it’s clear that Yoo has produced a musical composition of her own, at once expansive and deeply personal.

— Paul Dallas

Paul Dallas I haven’t seen your earlier short films, but I wondered if Songs From The Northdeveloped out of them, or if it marks a new direction?

Soon-Mi Yoo It was only after finishing Songs that I realized how much the film is a continuation of my earlier work.

PD The short films were also about North Korea?

SY They address the Korean peninsula, its history and conflicts; South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War, for example.

PD Did you study filmmaking?

SY I studied German Literature in Seoul and then I took filmmaking classes while living in Seattle. I was actually first interested in narrative filmmaking and studied screenwriting because I was concerned with structure. However, I was impatient with the rigid formulas and structures that defined most narrative films. I had different ideas, especially about characters, but didn’t know how to express them. After directing a narrative short I had a personal crisis and decided to quit filmmaking to take up photography.

PD Because the satisfaction with still photography is more immediate?

SY Exactly. I thought still photography would give me more freedom, artistically, from the whole larger apparatus of film production. And so I completed an MFA in photography at the Massachusetts College of Art, where I now teach. MassArt has a very strong experimental film tradition.

Soon-Mi Yoo 02

Page from Soon-Mi Yoo’s notebook.

I have always had a strong interest in documentary filmmaking but was frustrated with the formal constraints of the kinds of three-act-storytelling typically used. My films up to Songsare all attempts to find a form to fit what I was interested in exploring. As in my short films, Songs engages a core of issues or questions that I explore from various angles. I use found footage and archival imagery but in a different manner from many experimental filmmakers who are perhaps more interested in the formal, physical qualities of the film, its grain and texture.

While I am very interested in the materiality of the archival footage that I use, I am more concerned with what is contained within the image, what is being represented, documented. André Bazin’s idea of the “fingerprint of reality” resonates with me. It’s almost a natural instinct, even in the age of Photoshop, to want to believe in and trust the image, even when we know that it could be fake. This belief is very interesting to me. Looking at historical documents or films, the fact that they exist, and that the people in them once existed and are now no more—this means a lot to me. This present moment is fleeting; it disappears as soon as we turn around. And yet the past somehow lingers in the images that remain. North Koreans understand this, although in a bizarre way. I went to the Wonsan Revolutionary Museum where we were not allowed to film; I think it’s because they knew it might be too bizarre for Westerners.

Soon-Mi Yoo 03

Still from Songs From the North, 2014. Cinematography and direction by Soon-Mi Yoo. Produced by Soon-Mi Yoo and Haden Guest. Co-producer Rui Alexandre Santos, Rosa Filmes, Portugal.

PD Was it really extreme?

SY It’s extreme in the sense that it’s a gigantic space—a huge three-story building that’s devoted to the Great Leader (Kim Il Sung) and his son, Dear Leader (Kim Jong Il). It contained things that they had said and objects they came in contact with. For instance, there’s a plastic bucket displayed in a glass case because the Dear Leader had looked at it! I do believe, however, that there is a certain kind of illumination that happens when you look at something and really pay close attention. It exists in time, but it can also go beyond time. I understand Walter Benjamin’s historical imagination in that sense. What he calls “Jetztzeit” or “now-time.” For a long time I didn’t understand what that meant.

PD In a sense, your film is about how history is made continually present. Kim Il Sung was in power for forty-six years, from 1948 to his death in 1994, and you show us how he remains a daily presence in the lives and minds of North Koreans.

SY While I was working on Songs, I began to understand that Benjamin was speaking of historical imagination as being able to go back to a moment in history and somehow “own” that moment. Instead of looking at it as something in the past, to see it as something in the present. You could see it as a revolutionary possibility—a different future in the potential of the moment. Well, most of the time, if you look at history, it didn’t turn out very well. (laughter) Historical imagination has to do with that kind of empathetic projection of the moment, whether it’s present or past. And you acknowledge the potential of that moment instead of just accepting it as inevitable. When you look at history in a Benjaminian way, you try to own the moment and imagine how it could be different. So that’s what I was trying to think about, the possibility of a different reality.

PD Songs combines traditional, archival film footage with online videos you discovered. We’re at an interesting moment. The digital age has rendered film a disembodied medium. This raises certain existential questions for documentary practice. But we also now have access to footage we might never have seen otherwise. One by-product of the remix age is that “found footage” has become an increasingly dubious term. Your film is the product of a great deal of research. What was the process like for you?

SY For example there was the black-and-white footage of a bombed out church during the Korean War. It was an actual film shot by an America military photographer who had a great eye. You see the clapboard, and there are people picking up debris, two women are looking up. Seeing it for the first time blew me away, it was beautiful.

PD There’s a history of military cameramen becoming Look photographers. Where did you find the footage?

SY In the National Archives. Americans are very good at documenting their war activities. I was working on a project on army “mascots”—Korean orphans American soldiers took in during the Korean War. They wore little miniature army uniforms, and they were like pets to the soldiers. They really were called mascots.

PD Was this a benevolent activity?

SY I think most of the time, yes. There were a hundred thousand orphans roaming around Korea during the war, and they were desperate, so I think they were taken care of by the American soldiers. It’s a very interesting story. I am sure the soldiers meant well, but at the same time, it is bizarre, human beings living like pets.

In any case, I discovered this 35mm print of the people picking up debris in a bombed out church in Wonsan, Korea. A terrible and beautiful image. It stayed with me, and I spent a long time trying to understand how I could use it in my work. I discovered other footage through my research—people carrying rocks over steep hills or pulling a truck up a mountain by hand and with ropes, falling in the snow—I was just amazed by the images. They stuck to me.

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Still from Songs From the North, 2014. Cinematography and direction by Soon-Mi Yoo. Produced by Soon-Mi Yoo and Haden Guest. Co-producer Rui Alexandre Santos, Rosa Filmes, Portugal.

PD This raises an important question. Songs From The North is a highly personal film that documents your encounters with North Korea. As an artist, how do you position yourself in relation to historical material? How do you find your way in?

SY My work is all in first-person. But this I is not just showing you my private I, it’s also a poetic I. Like the I you encounter when reading poetry, which is the poet himself or herself, but it’s beyond that person also. In my previous work, even when I used narration, it was written and read. It was important to me that text was there instead of casually addressing the audience. All the material that I include is filtered or seen through or possessed by the poetic I.

PD And then there’s the relationship between collective and individual history. Each archival moment is an encounter with collective history, and it is reprocessed and given a different context through this poetic I. Did you use archives in South Korea or North Korea?

SY There are archives in South Korea but I haven’t had a lot of luck identifying material I could use. I couldn’t access any North Korean archive except for the material available online. Again, all the archival footage on the Korean War came from the US National Archives. A lot of the war footage I saw at the National Archive was of bombing and strafing. It’s terrible and frightening, but then after awhile it became numbing. And then I started to notice that just as the bomber dove to destroy his target and pulled up suddenly, in that movement there appeared a haunting landscape, captured accidentally for just a few seconds.

When I first went to North Korea in 2010, I felt that I’d seen the landscape before, as if I’d been there before. I thought it was because I was Korean, but then I realized that I had seen it in the US bombing footage at the National Archives! It was a strange, uncanny feeling. Most of my texts came out of that kind of realization, or at least I tried to stay true to my experience and memory. I also attempt to convey the minimum information needed if you don’t know anything about Korea or the war. For outsiders, it’s very difficult to understand.

PD North Korea is typically caricatured by Western media, which has a dehumanizing effect. What makes Songs so unique are your intimate encounters with the people who actually live there. Since you had guides directing you, were you ever tempted to use a hidden camera? To photograph something that you weren’t supposed to?

SY I was never tempted to use a hidden camera. It’s not possible and, also, my intention was not to try to reveal anything “secret.” We know that poverty and dictatorship exist in North Korea. But then maybe that is all we know about North Korea. And it is visible in the film. It doesn’t have to be revealed by a hidden camera.

On my first trip, it was minus twenty-six degrees. You couldn’t go outside and when you did, the wind would just knock you down. People were walking with oxen carts, standing on ice, looking for who knows what. And this image of North Korea in the winter stayed with me even though the two other trips I made were in the summer. The way North Koreans use winter and snow as a metaphor for their harsh conditions began to make sense after my first visit.

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Still from Songs From the North, 2014. Cinematography and direction by Soon-Mi Yoo. Produced by Soon-Mi Yoo and Haden Guest. Co-producer Rui Alexandre Santos, Rosa Filmes, Portugal.

PD Can you talk about the scene with the man at the memorial site? It’s an uncomfortable and ambiguous moment in the film. You ask him why he is crying and he clearly wants you to put the camera down, but you continue to shoot.

SY This was my third trip and I went in a tour group with American professors. Mr. Kang was the North Korean cameraman for the group. He was curious about my camera, so we got to talk shop a bit. Because I spoke Korean, it was a kind of a bonding experience. When we got to this site, there was a lot of activity. You see tour groups in the background. There was a group of women singing and someone was playing a violin. So I’m trying to capture all this and Mr. Kang asked me, “Do you know this song?” I didn’t. He said it was “Sa Hyang Ga” written by the Great Leader. In Korean, it’s “Song of Missing Home” or “Thinking of Home.” The way they translate it into English is “Nostalgia.” He was telling me how the Great Leader wrote the song longing for Mangyongdae, his home. And I asked him, joking a little bit, if he would sing it for me and I turned my camera onto him. He wouldn’t sing it, but he was humming the song and I could see him tearing up, so I just stayed with him. It was one of the rare, rare moments in North Korea that you could actually get genuine emotions. He tried to break away from me but I followed him.

PD It’s a moment of tension, of suspension. As a viewer, you’re waiting for an eruption or fissure of some kind. You were interested in how much he would give you.

SY Exactly. Usually they just turn away.

PD If he really wanted to he could have just walked away, I suppose.

SY That’s right. North Koreans generally are kind and gentle, contrary to widely held beliefs. When you encounter them in person, they are modest and shy. And they are very private, so they do not reveal their emotions to outsiders very easily. When I asked Mr. Kang whether he missed the Great Leader—this was kind of a provocation—he gently walked away from my frame. I stopped, because I didn’t want to be too rude. I think I wanted to push, and then maybe a little bit more. But one has to know when it’s enough.

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Still from Songs From the North, 2014. Cinematography and direction by Soon-Mi Yoo. Produced by Soon-Mi Yoo and Haden Guest. Co-producer Rui Alexandre Santos, Rosa Filmes, Portugal.

PD It was a moment that resonated for me—this mixture of nostalgia, pride, and patriotism. Your father, whom you also interview in the film, talks about the historical roots of North Korea’s nationalism.

SY Every culture or nation uses nationalism to consolidate its power. As my father said, they actually abandoned the fundamental Communist doctrine. They dropped Marxism-Leninism from their constitution in favor of Kim-Il-Sungism in the ’80s, I believe. Part of this nationalistic fervor comes from the Kim generation’s own experience during the colonial period. Kim Il Sung and his anti-Japanese guerrillas belonged to the Chinese communist rebellion against the Japanese. But Mao Tsetung suspected Korean communists of being pro-Japanese infiltrators or spies—because, you know, Korea was a Japanese colony. A lot of the Korean communists got purged by the Chinese Communist Party and killed. Even Kim Il Sung was arrested and was about to be executed, and only when a Chinese general vouched for him, because Kim Il Sung saved his life, did he get off. Older North Koreans never forgot this lesson.

The Japanese put out these massive punitive expeditions to capture Kim Il Sung and his fighters and placed a huge amount of money on his head, because at the time, he was feared by the Japanese while revered by the Koreans as a kind of savior. Japanese colonization was very brutal. Japan laid siege on the areas where Kim Il Sung’s fighters were. It was winter and very cold and most of the partisans perished. Kim Il Sung and four hundred others managed to escape to the Russian border and this journey is the original “Arduous March.”

This is a very famous story that is ingrained in North Korean culture. When the famine happened in the 1990s, they called it the “Second Arduous March.” The lessons that Kim Il Sung and his colleagues learned, they never forgot. It is in their bone marrow, as they say. In the top echelon of Kim Il Sung’s regime, most had experienced their family members starving to death or being killed by the Japanese. A lot of them didn’t even grow up to their full height because of malnutrition. This is where they’re coming from; they are forever referring to their partisan experience. And so nationalism—

PD —took over—

SY —everything. “Our country, our people” precedes everything. Kim Il Sung’s governing idea, Juche, which is often translated as “self-reliance,” stems directly from that experience. Even though it was disastrous for the country as an economic principle and governing idea, psychologically it appealed to people.

PD It’s a surreal history to contend with.

SY It is. It all goes back to what happened eighty years ago; they still hold onto it.

PD I want to ask about the extraordinary footage of the children’s performance, which we see later in the film. Onstage, in front of thousands, a boy of ten or eleven recounts an extended confession and then tells how he was rescued by the Leader. It culminates in a collective paroxysm of tears and singing. Throughout, the camera cuts away to the audience, dressed informal attire, also weeping. It’s unforgettably strange. I couldn’t figure out when it occurred. Was this footage from thirty years ago?

SY The children’s performance is from a 2013 New Year’s celebration. I first heard about the boy’s confession from a listserv on North Korea. I went to YouTube to see it, and I discovered that there was more to it. I agree it is very puzzling because you don’t know what’s going on.

PD Initially, I found it impossible to discern whether I was watching something spontaneous or scripted. Of course, as the drama reaches an almost surreal crescendo, it’s clear that there’s serious stage management happening.

SY It’s all scripted, of course. What I discovered was that everyone in the audience was crying, not because of what the boy was telling on stage—which was an incomplete story—but the public already knew the backstory. The clip came with a written narrative, in Korean, about how he’d lost his parents—his father went to jail, his mother had a terminal illness—and became an orphan. In Korea, being an orphan is the worst fate. Family is the most important thing. Without your parents to protect, guide, and nurture you, you’re considered nothing. Being an orphan, but saved, protected, and guarded by the Dear Marshal is the same narrative as Kim Il Sung taking care of the orphans during and after his anti-Japanese guerrilla days. The children had lost their parents—the Japanese killed them all—and Kim Il Sung supposedly took care of them, tried to feed them, and carried them during the Arduous March.

PD This patriarchal metaphor is woven into the social fabric.

SY Kim Il Sung established the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School to educate the orphans of the anti-Japanese guerrilla fighters and they became the core defenders of the regime. In Songs, you see Kim Jong Il with a group of boys in military uniform when he visited the school. This adopted parenthood is what the boy was still talking about in 2013: “You are my true father. My father and mother didn’t do anything for me, but you actually took care of me and I’m well because of you.”

PD Was he in fact being cared for by a government official?

SY We don’t know. He was probably attending some school, like Mangyongdae Revolutionary School, with a dorm.

PD His classmates also begin weeping with him, and the tears are authentic. It’s unlike any performance I’ve ever witnessed.

SY It’s a mystery. When I watched the two-hour New Year’s celebration performance, I discovered other things—like how they looked at themselves as a kind of distant star or a beautiful planet. The performance went on, children started singing, and crying, their voices breaking. The emotions—it’s impossible not to be moved by that and somehow feel for them. And then, at the same time, you are outraged by how these little children can be—

PD —indoctrinated—

SY —and do this kind of thing. You do feel for them, but at the same time, it’s just so bizarre. I felt this a lot while working on this film.

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Still from Songs From the North, 2014. Cinematography and direction by Soon-Mi Yoo. Produced by Soon-Mi Yoo and Haden Guest. Co-producer Rui Alexandre Santos, Rosa Filmes, Portugal.

PD Where did you get that film clip?

SY Online. North Koreans are very good, nowadays, at publicizing their material. They have their own YouTube channels and online presence. Because I understand Korean, it’s easy for me. I’ve watched this particular clip a thousand times, but I still—every time it messes me up.

PD Tell me about interviewing your father. He gives some pretty intimate and candid reflections. Have you had conversations with him about the past before?

SY Of course, this is not new. And I have asked him to tell me stories on camera before because I want to document my own father. Growing up in South Korea, it’s the kind of story that I’ve been hearing all my life. My father always said that all his friends who were smart went North—the ones who were idealistic, or ambitious, or believed in a new society.

PD And there wasn’t a migration back after they discovered that it wasn’t what they thought it would be?

SY You couldn’t come back down. Initially, the border was kind of porous and people moved about, but once it was stabilized, you couldn’t travel easily across the border.

PD That was when the demilitarized zone was created?

SY Yes. Once they had a ceasefire, the border was sealed. There were 100,000 separated families in South Korea alone. They had family left in the north, and they’ve had no contact since 1953!

PD It’s like a time capsule. Have you shown the film to your father?

SY I told him that his interview was in the film. Unfortunately, however, films about the North are still completely banned in the South. I have been told that Songs might not be allowed to be shown in South Korea.

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Originally published in

BOMB 131, Spring 2015

Featuring interviews with Rosa Barba, Soon-Mi Yoo, Agnieszka Kurant, Tatiana Bilbao, Alejandro Zambra, Tom McCarthy, Matana Roberts, and Barbara Kasten. 

Read the issue
BOMB 131