Isang Yun – In Between North and South Korea (2015)  

Documentary by Maria Stodtmeier
Studio: Accentus ACC 20208 (9/25/15) [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9  color
Audio: DD Surround, DTS 5.1
Language: German
Subtitles: English, Korean, Chinese, French
All regions
Length: 60:00
Rating: ***

An interesting look at a story that few know.

There are three different and, yet, related reasons to explore this documentary; each having its own appeal, in my opinion.

First, the work of film maker Maria Stodtmeier is quite good and holds your attention. She first became a name in the documentary genre with another music related film, El Sistema, in which she showed us the story of the Venezuelan music program that gave us Gustavo Dudamel, among others. She can tell a fairly obscure story and give us a real sense of an inside view.

Second, composer Isang Yun was an unknown to me and, I suspect, to many others as well. He was perhaps South Korea’s best-known classical composer whose music was banned in his own country for nearly forty years under the pretense that he was a spy; someone who was allowed to travel back and forth between North and South Korea and to form a performing ensemble in the north – featuring mostly his compositions.

Musically, what we hear of Yun’s music in this film seems interesting enough. It is in some ways typical of the many Asian composers who wrote music post World War Two in a style that seems to seek Western affection while honoring the idioms and traditions of his homeland.

To be honest, I was not so enthralled with the music that I am motivated to go seek out more. Just the facts of his career and the controversy that, apparently, lingers around his loyalties and his motivations makes for fascinating story telling, however.

Therefore, the third and – to me – most compelling reason to watch and learn from this film is to gain a glimpse into the culture and political situation in the divided Korea; one of the many seemingly needless casualties of the ‘Cold War.’  I know Korean musicians who admit that, in the West, we grow up learning much more about the rise and fall of the USSR and/or the Vietnam conflict than we do the Korean War and its aftermath.

Stodtmeier is an excellent film maker. This is truly a ‘special interest’ film whose interest lies primarily in the human story of Isang Yun; who never became very well known outside of North or South Korea and whose music remains a contemporary oddity in many ways. I maintain that the music is not even the story, here; unusual and interesting though it is. It is the apparent manipulation of this man and his career by both sides in the bitter decades-long social tragedy.

To the South, he was recognized as their gifted native son who made the political mistake (to many) of accepting invitations from the North to become “the” Korean composer. He was, therefore, demonized and shunned. To the North, he was the same gifted composer but whose skills and reputation could be used to show the West how progressive their government seemed.

I find it sad, ironic and still somewhat fascinating to see some parallels in what Yun went through compared to, let’s say, Shostakovich. Even now, how telling is it that Kim Jong-un apparently thinks it gives him credibility (or it thumbing his nose at the West?) by trying to become ‘best buds’ with retired NBA wild man Dennis Rodman?

This film remains in my mind a very special interest project but the story here is not Isang Yun’s music, per se. It is a look at one very unique and very troubled culture and political landscape and navigating its largely thankless waters.

—Daniel Coombs