The North Korean government wanted to showcase how great it is to live in the Communist state. They negotiated with Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky to come to Pyongyang and have him and his documentary crew follow one young girl, Lee Zin-mi, and her parents for a year. It was soon apparent Mansky had little freedom to shoot what he wanted. But, the filmmakers were able to smuggle out uncensored footage and brings us into that totalitarian state in “Under the Sun.”
The documentary to show North Korea as “the best country in the world” proves it to be anything but. Director Mansky had unprecedented access to many aspects of North Korean life and the authorities do make the place look nice. But, everything you see in this striking work is thoroughly scripted and choreographed to show life in North Korea as a workers’ paradise.
At first, as you watch the film crew recording Zin-mi’s day to day life, you realize that scenes like a family dinner are not just staged and rehearsed. They are carefully directed by Mansky’s North Korean handlers and every detail is painstakingly maneuvered.
The dinner scene is a great example of how the entire project was staged step by step: the Lee family gathers for the evening meal and mom brings out a huge tray of succulent food, enough for a family of 15, not just three. They are chatting about Zin-min’s day at school when you hear, off camera, “Cut!” The reality of the “documentary” is destroyed when the government handlers begin to alter the dinner scene and dialog and reshoot the scene – over and over again. This propaganda manipulation is shown throughout the entirety of “Under the Sun.”
The sheer magnitude of what I can only call brainwashing is stunning, with the children being fed Kim Jong-un's brand of Communist ideology at an early age and ever after. Then there are the lavish pageants that the government stages beautifully with colorful costumes and choreographed dances that would make Buzby Berkley envious. This markedly contrasts with the dour shades of grey of the civilian population as they plod along the streets to and from their jobs. Mansky’s look at North Korean life reminds me of Hitler’s Nazi regime, especially for the children, who must join the Child Union – think of it as Hitler Youth but with all the children, not just the boys – before they reach ten years of age.
There is a surreal feel to “Under the Sun” as the filmmakers, the only outsiders given such unprecedented access to life in North Korea, show just what it is like to be a citizen in that totalitarian country. What you see is frightening: an entire nation declaring fealty for their Beloved Leader Kim Jong-un, the man who declared America its sworn enemy. Before I saw this documentary, I thought of Kim and his regime as a paper tiger. When the credits ran at the end, I no longer thought that. We, as a world, should be very concerned about North Korea and its avowed hate for the west. I give it an A-.
Russian documentary filmmaker Manskiy was hired to show the glories of North Korea with Lee Zin-Mi, an eight year-old schoolgirl from an average family in Pyongyang joining the Korean Children's Union, as his central subject. But the filmmaker informs us at the onset that a script, locations and 24 hour escorts were assigned, his footage to be handed over at the end of each day. Manskiy took advantage of the North Koreans' ignorance of technology, running his camera when they thought it was off, copying and deleting his surreptitious coverage. Kim Jong-un's hoped for propaganda film has turned into something else entirely "Under the Sun."
It's extraordinary how revealing Manskiy's film is even before he begins to include behind the scenes 'outtakes.' One of our first, rare looks at North Korea's capital city impresses with just how ghostly its streets are, enveloped in foggy smog, its wide boulevards empty of vehicles. We meet Lee Zin-Mi in a bright, spacious apartment, a big, red Kimjongilia begonia blooming in a window. She tells us how her father's told her she lives in the most beautiful country in the world.
Then she goes to school where a teacher endlessly repeats a story about 'the great Generalissimo Kim Il-sung throwing boulders at traitorous landowners and Japanese aggressors, students mouthing back her words. The facade begins to fall ever so slightly, the boredom of some students evident. We see her father being fawned over as the engineer of a manufacturing plant exceeding government goals. Her mother is congratulated for her prize winning Kimjongilia and her daughter's recent entry into the North Korean system by her supervisor and coworkers at a soy milk plant. With a few rare title card insertions, Manskiy informs us that Zin-Mi told him her dad was a print journalist and her mother worked in a cafeteria and the only time he ever saw children entering or exiting the school was on the day he shot there (he surmises that the children actually live there, their parents housed in the barracks he noted beside the factory, his camera peeping into windows bearing out his theory).
After viewing the ceremony where Zin-Mi receives her red scarf, a veteran telling her class about American cowardice during the Korean War and families having their pictures taken in front of giant statues of their great leaders, we come away with a portrait of a brainwashed people told what to do every waking moment since their births. Even before we see Manskiy's handlers coaching his subjects we can spot the deceptions, a family of three sitting down to a banquet that would feed at least a dozen. As groups gather in public squares to sing and dance with patriotic pride, Manskiy's camera moves to the side where people sweep the streets and tend the grass with tweezers.
Zin-Mi plays her part to perfection until she has trouble with complex dance steps during a lesson. Finally her teacher says a break is in order, but she immediately scolds the little girl and begins to show her the far more difficult steps she has yet to learn. As off camera assistants try to get the girl to stop crying, she's told to think of something good. 'What?' she asks. She fails to think of anything.
The Icarus Films DVD comes along just as another documentary on North Korea, "The Lovers and the Despot," is released into theaters, two instances of the Kim dynasty relying on foreign filmmakers who turned the tables on them. The "Under the Sun" DVD includes two extras. The first, a BBC news piece, includes an interview with Manskiy describing how he smuggled his film out and tells how MoMA wouldn't screen his film, afraid of North Korean retaliation. The second, a Daily Vice report, interviews a member of Jayu, the human rights organization which copresented the film at Toronto's Hot Docs Festival.
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