Director: Vitaly Mansky
As I mentioned in my post last year reviewing the documentary The Propaganda Game, I used to live in South Korea, and got to visit the DMZ during my time there, so I am always interested in learning as much as possible about what it must be like to live in a country that was only a few miles away from where I lived, but lightyears away in terms of freedom, accessibility, and expression. North Korea is fascinating because it wishes to not only control its citizens, which most nations wish to do in some form, but it is also obsessed with presenting itself as something it is not internationally. It wishes to be seen as a powerful nation that can stand up to all others, it wants to be seen as a beautiful utopia of the transformative and unifying power of communism, it wants to be known and not known at the same exact time. The amount of mental acrobatics one must subject themselves to in order to peacefully live and survive in the country can only be understood by the fictitious citizens of Oceania in Orwell’s 1984.
Under the Sun focuses on representing the day in the life of a North Korean girl and her family as she enters the Korean Children’s Union on the Day of the Shining Star, which is a day in which the North Koreans celebrate former leader’s Kim Jong Il’s birthday. Even though the Russian filmmaker was watched and accompanied for the entirety of his stay in the country, the filmmaking was directed by North Korean officials throughout, and every shot had to be approved before Vitaly Mansky was allowed to leave the country, he somehow was allowed to keep the recordings in between shots, the moments after setting up the camera, before and after a scene was finished. These are the moments that provide insight into an otherwise hermetic country so obsessed with how it is seen and how it chooses to operate and perform.
Zin Mi is a beautiful and intelligent child who finds herself as the film’s protagonist. Why she was chosen is unclear, but she is photogenic and can deliver lines fed to her by the scary men waiting on the sidelines of the shots. At one point the family seems to be having an innocent breakfast while awkwardly talking about kimchi, his significance to Korean culture, and its health benefits. Then the family is asked to do it again. And again. And again. Subtle changes to the script are made. Vacant stares abound. At one point Zin Mi is told to act like she does at home. Even the home and the dinner table are fake. It’s a throwaway moment, but exemplary of the fact that not everything is as it seems. Just like in The Propaganda Game when the filmmakers asked to visit a church and were treated to what amounted to a pantomime of religious cult, Under the Sun reminds us that everything we are seeing is actually lies. Even Zin Mi’s parents’ jobs are fake. A helpful text fills us in that Zin Mi had told the filmmakers before filming began what her parents did for work, but in the film their jobs showcase the industrial and nourishing strengths of the country.
The one thing that isn’t all a lie is Zin Mi’s emotional state. The pressure that she faces, that each North Korean faces, is so much that she breaks down a few times throughout the film. The ideology and propaganda are so internalized that when she is asked to speak to the importance of her country’s leader and his two antecedents, the young girl breaks down in tears proclaiming her undying love and devotion to them. This is a country where both Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung, have flowers that are named after them, statues depicting them as gods, frescos on buildings that must be bowed down to before being allowed to enter a school or workplace. By the end of the film I was in tears. Nothing particularly harrowing or deplorable ever really takes place on screen, even though the men in the wings are terrifying and dangerous. Yet, I was overwhelmed by a sense of compassion, horror, and sadness for these people – especially the children – who never show a moment of true joy. It is always performed and the smiles forced. But the eyes. Those eyes broke my heart.