Despite frequently being labeled the most reclusive country in the world, in the past half decade or so there have been a preponderance of documentaries about North Korea. TV shows, websites and documentary filmmakers have all offered their own spin on what is colloquially referred to as “The Hermit Kingdom”. Though told in different ways, all of these pieces have generally come to the same conclusion: North Korea is super duper bizarre, and one can’t take anything at face value.
Under the Sun comes to these same conclusions, but it’s entirely unique in the way in which they are achieved. Most documentarians who have made their way to the DPRK continually tell the viewer that they have official government minders and offer their analysis directly through voiceover. Director Vitaliy Manskiy‘s enlightened technique is to leave his camera rolling in between takes, where the viewer is awarded a look behind the curtain as the North Korean co-director goes in and directs the subjects as if they were actors in a narrative fiction film. Moments as benign as a familial discussion on the virtues of eating kimchi are revealed to be entirely fabricated, down to the blocking of the subjects.
In fact, a disclaimer in the beginning of the film lets us know that Manskiy was provided with a shooting script, and all footage was reviewed by official minders. One would have to assume he was able to hide the footage of the subjects being directed, or explain them away as cutting room floor material, but this context means that we must view everything which follows through a lens of calculated deception.
The film follows young Lee Zin-Mi as she prepares to join the Children’s Union, a pre-adolescent version of the party, who along with her parents will act as our portal to Pyongyang. Early on, Lee is literally so, as riding along with her on a bus to school affords the filmmaker an impromptu dolly and the viewer the opportunity to look out the window onto the streets of the city, one of the film’s few truly authentic moments.
Grey and foggy, people seem to generally be going about their business as if in any other place, but with the size of the city it feels almost like a ghost town. In contrast, when Zin-Mi happens upon a group on the street practicing organized calisthenics, we must ask if we have been returned to the “set” of Under the Sun. The answer is likely yes, and we must ask ourselves if behind their pleasant faces, these public stretching enthusiasts may have been paid or perhaps incentivized in a more sinister way, in order to show the health of the nation’s citizenry.
By the end of the sequence, the most people seen in a public space are a giant group going to bow in front of a mural of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. These tightly grouped hoards are juxtaposed with shots of the Lees studying their lines, the implication being that they are actors as much as our central protagonists. Whether or not they were collected on this day specifically for the benefit of the camera is up to interpretation, but one way or the other the citizenry is always living under the mental direction of the State.
Moments of patriotic obedience such as this operate in a unique way when taking the earlier disclaimer into consideration. In another instance, Zin-Mi shows up to her class early, and along with a classmate sing a nationalistic song while cleaning desks before rest of the class arrives. The other girl comments to Lee how she arrived earlier than her yet again, making clear for the camera that our subject is meant to be seen as a model student. While this is almost surely an entirely constructed scene utilizing tropes of the Socialist Realism aesthetic on which North Koreans were raised, we can also see that how much it is impressed upon the youth to be model North Koreans.
It is evident that Manskiy does his damnedest to try and find moments of truth behind the official narrative. We are granted access to Pyongyang’s famed subway, where a lone man getting into a car stares silently into the camera, as if trying to tell us something without saying anything. As he goes by we see but for a moment some scratch grafitti on the train’s windows, familiar to us in the West but out of sync with the image North Korea wants to present. In moments such as these humanity and reality are able to shine through the preapproved script. But by and large, it is through the viewer’s interpretation of the assemblage of scenes that the truth is revealed.
What Do They Want Us To Think?
Despite the clear construction of the film’s scenes, what is often unclear is what the DPRK has to gain by projecting their story over reality. Another set of contextual captions inform us that Zin-Mi told the filmmaker her father was a journalist, yet here he is depicted as overseeing a group of female garment workers, the story belied by his comic ineptitude at the job. Her mother is similarly placed in a soy-milk factory.
The perceptual benefits of one position over the other or not at all apparent, leaving the intentions of the North Korean side of the production team opaque. In fact, the main message impressed upon me was how appearances are prized over actual productivity; how much time did these multiple takes of Lee congratulating an elderly garment worker take away from actually producing clothing for people to wear?
At other times the message is blunt and clear. Mobile propaganda vans roam the streets spouting official rhetoric like an authoritarian version of the Blues Brothers‘ car. During a lengthy scene showing Zin-Mi’s class instruction, the teacher powerfully delivers the party line: “We must learn to hate our enemies. You must hate the Japanese, the Americans, their puppets and all of our enemies.”
Though clearly meant to be a show of power and national allegiance, what it ends up revealing is the importance of educational indoctrination to the state apparatus, and the archaic teaching methods employed; the only questions asked are by the teacher for the students to parrot her lesson.
Propagandizing the West
That disconnect between inferred and implied is what makes Under the Sun so striking. In its effort to present the sort of overt propaganda the regime regularly disseminates amongst its population to a Western audience, the North Korean members of the production, rather than convincing us of their competence as a society, end up further perpetuating the notions we already have.
It would have almost certainly been more effective to that end to present the Lees as they truly are and to offer the unmediated life of a family in the DPRK, but we’ll likely never get that film; not under the current government anyway. Rather, like the absurd amount of large medals military leaders wear to official functions, which produce the effect of jingle bells whenever they move, appearances are preferred to practicality. Aided by Manskiy’s surreptitious footage, the model image presented appears laughably perverse.
This is the whole point, to continually remind the viewer of the construction of it all in order to undermine the official line. We must question everything; the selection of the Lee family, the scenes in which Zin-Mi finds herself, even seemingly unimportant figures in public areas. The subject of Under the Sun is thus not the Lees or even North Korea, but artifice and propaganda; always present in one form or another in docs on the DPRK, but this is the first time where it is the focus.
Aside from being utterly fascinating on a surface level, where the film becomes transcendent for me is in documenting the effect of this fake reality on the every day North Korean. The isolated nation has sometimes been referred to as a Truman Show on a national scale, but this film hints at something more sinister, more akin to the famous Twilight Zone episode “It’s A Good Life“, in which a small town must constantly appear happy to placate its telekinetic boy-ruler, lest he visit some sort of grotesque punishment upon them.
Aside from the mind-powers, the analogy should be obvious. Personified in the film’s final, moving shot, Under the Sun at once illuminates the ludicrous fakery of North Korea’s outward projection, while recognizing the very real mental effect on the people supposedly meant to benefit.
What other works at once both promote and subvert propaganda?
Under The Sun is coming to DVD and VOD on September 20, 2016.
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