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A rare glimpse behind the heavy curtain of secrecy and paranoia that shields North Korea from prying foreign cameras, Under The Sun is a fascinating study in state propaganda and the darker truth that hovers just outside the frame. After lengthy negotiations with the authorities in Pyongyang, Russian documentary maker Vitaly Mansky agreed to allow his local partners to choose the film’s subject matter and locations, as well as scrutinizing and correcting any “mistakes.” But their joint project broke down midway through, leaving Mansky with some highly revealing footage about life inside Kim Jong-Un’s hermit kingdom.
Screening in competition at Black Nights in Tallinn this week, Under The Sun should translate award-winning festival buzz into theatrical potential and keen TV interest. Mansky’s long track record of making nuanced, intimate portraits of life inside problematic regimes like Cuba may also help this multinational co-production find a sympathetic audience. But not inside North Korea itself, where it is likely to be about as welcome as a double bill of The Interview and Team America: World Police.
The focus of the film is Zin-Mi, an angelic eight-year-old schoolgirl who has just joined the Children’s Union youth group on the birthday of former leader Kim Jong Il, a nationwide celebration known as The Day of the Shining Star. Zin-Mi attends the best school in Pyongyang, sitting keenly through interminable history lessons about North Korea’s glorious victories against Japanese “aggressors” and American “cowards.” Her parents both work in exemplary factories that routinely exceed state-imposed production targets. In the evening, all three gather at their gleaming modern apartment to share laughter and patriotic slogans over a dinner table laden with delicious food. A socialist paradise in action.
Except, of course, this is far from the true picture. While he initially seems to go along with this sunny utopian fantasy, Mansky lets reality intrude by degrees. It soon becomes clear that government minders are scripting and staging every scene, dictating each forced smile and clunky line of dialogue. These unnamed stooges intrude on camera, demanding retakes when the cast have not been sufficiently fawning towards North Korea’s dynastic Communist Party rulers. The patriotic pageantry at Zin-Mi’s school is a choreographed fraud, her parents both have fictional jobs, and even their modestly nice apartment is a fake: “behave naturally, as you do at home,” one director tells the family. Both surreal and sinister, it feels like we are watching a real-life version of The Truman Show.
There is no such thing as an objective documentary. Under The Sun could have fallen into the trap of becoming heavy-handed propaganda itself, but Mansky mostly maintains a humane and non-judgmental distance. Aside from adding a few explanatory captions on screen, he does not editorialize, simply allowing these staged vignettes to tell their own creepy story. He also captures some fascinating reportage images of everyday life inside Pyongyang, with its majestic Moscow-style subway stations, drab apartment blocks and virtually traffic-free boulevards.
Underpinned by a spare chamber-orchestra score, Under The Sun is as much melancholy human interest story as political statement. In the film’s most beautiful and quietly moving sequence, the camera pans across the faces of North Korean citizens as they pose beneath giant bronze statues of Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung. Imprisoned in a hellish police state masquerading as heaven on Earth, their smiles are cheerful but their eyes are fearful.
Production companies: Vertov Real Cinema, Hypermarket Film, Saxonia Entertainment, Korea Film Export and Import Corporation
Director, screenwriter: Vitaly Mansky
Producers: Simone Baumann, Vit Klusak, Petr Kubica, Natalia Manskaya, Filip Remunda
Cinematographers: Alexandra Ivanova, Mikhail Gorubchuk
Editor: Andrej Paperny
Music: Karlis Ausans
Sales company: Deckert Distribution GmbH
No rating, 106 minutes
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