‘I Am Sun Mu’: DOC NYC Review

I Am Sun Mu Still 2- H 2015
Courtesy of Required Reading
A striking look at artists vs. tyrants.

Government paranoia strikes deep and strange when a North Korean defector mounts a solo art exhibition in China.

The figure at the center of the spirited exposé I Am Sun Mu never shows his face to the camera. Nor does he reveal his true name. Appearing blurred, in silhouette or from the back, the pseudonymous Sun Mu, whose alias means “no boundaries,” has good reason to hide his identity, as Adam Sjoberg’s documentary makes bracingly clear.

Since escaping his native North Korea in the ’90s and settling in Seoul, the onetime propaganda artist for the Kim regime now puts a subversive spin on cheery socialist realist imagery. The parodic results, often featuring the dictatorship’s ruling family, have been exhibited in galleries around the world. Sjoberg tracks the painter’s preparations for a solo show in Beijing — an opportunity freighted with risk — and in the process captures an increasingly surreal and disturbing series of events, offering plenty to chew on for art lovers and political junkies alike.

Having premiered, aptly, at the DMZ International Documentary Film Festival, which takes place near the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, the documentary is taking its U.S. bow at the nonfiction showcase DOC NYC.

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Nerves are high for Sun Mu, his South Korean wife — who, somewhat surprisingly, appears onscreen — and his artist friends as preparations get under way for his solo show at the Yuan Art Museum. The event will mark the first time a North Korean artist’s work is shown in China without supervision from Pyongyang. Recognizing the danger that everyone involved faces, museum curator Liang Kegang (an artist who famously auctioned a jar of French air as a comment on China’s notorious pollution levels), speaks openly about the unreasonableness of the North Korean government and notes the many spies lurking in Beijing’s Wangjing district.

He isn't exaggerating. The bizarre scene that unfolds around the museum almost matches the tone of Sun Mu’s art with its blithe surface and undertow of menace and sorrow. Sjoberg (Shake the Dust), who handles d.p. duties, is there in the thick of things, at one point provoking an apparent North Korean agent to aim his cameraphone at the filmmaker.

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The doc’s visuals have a bright clarity that’s in sync with Sun Mu’s graphic, poster-based style. Ryan Wehner’s subtle animation adds a dynamic dimension to the drawings and paintings and is especially helpful when illustrating the artist’s escape across several borders.

What others see as politicized in the artist’s work is, he reminds the director, his life story. A good student who wanted only to serve the Great Leader, Sun Mu has seen the authoritarian society from both sides. The film is evidence of his courage as well as the limits to his hard-won freedom, and sheds a sharp light on the lengths to which tyranny will go to in order to maintain its monolithic façade.

Production companies: Loose Luggage Media, Required Reading
Director: Adam Sjoberg
Producers: Adam Sjoberg, Justin Wheeler
Executive producers: Blaine Vess, Rudy Blanco, Lavonne Blanco, David Jacobson, Seanne Winslow
Director of photography: Adam Sjoberg
Editor/co-producer: Mariana Blanco
Composer: Joel P. West
Director of animation: Ryan Wehner

No rating, 88 minutes