By embracing the fake, Under the Sun shines rare light onto what life in North Korea might, and might not, be like.
‘Action’ is the first word spoken in Under the Sun. It’s an odd word to hear in a documentary, but a telling one: Little in this film is, in the normal sense of the word, ‘real’.
On ‘Action’, Zin-mi, our eight year old protagonist begins to lovingly tend her pot plant, which is placed on the windowsill of her apartment. She then turns towards the camera and, framed by the Pyongyang skyline dimly visible through the smog, tells us what a great country Korea is, the most beautiful in the East. The North Korean script writer and the government minders who are orchestrating these ‘documentary’ scenes of everyday family life, do not appear to have noticed the irony.
It is, of course, their carefully constructed version of reality that gives us insight into what life in North Korea might actually be like, and Russian director Vitaly Mansky’s pretence of going along with this vision that enables us to see it.
The film follows Zin-mi and her family as she prepares to join the children’s union on the Day of the Shining Star, (Kim Jong Il’s birthday). Stunningly shot by Alexandra Ivanova and with a beautiful score by Kārlis Auzāns, it is a collaboration between Mansky and his crew, and the North Korean authorities who provided the script, round the clock minders and officials to check the footage.
Luckily a lot slipped past the officials’ scrutiny. The crew seemed to have achieved this mainly by simply keeping the camera rolling between takes, letting us see how the artifice is put together and thereby giving us hints as to what the reality might be.
A family dinner scene in Zin-mi and her parents’ apartment (the table piled high with enough food to feed a large film crew) took a number of takes to get right – Zin-mi was not sitting with her legs tucked under her, her parents’ laughter was not vigorous enough, and the health benefits of Kimchi had not been adequately emphasised. In a hurry to get it done, one of the minders tells Zin-mi to just act naturally, as she would if she was at home. We are left to ponder this sentence for a moment. If this ‘home’ is not home, what then is?
The identity of her home is just the first of a number of adjustments that the script writers have made to Zin-mi’s life. We never see what the reality is, but in seeing what it is not, we get to build up our own ideas of what it might be.
At other times the ‘real’ seems to seep into the edges of the frames – As Zin-mi and her parents ride down a subway escalator, their hair gently blowing in the breeze, their colourful down jackets contrasting with the cool metal, we see a dark mass of bodies packed together moving upwards on the adjacent escalator. As we contemplate the city at dusk, we realise that not one building has a light switched on, and somehow, amidst the beautifully orchestrated mass dance in a square in Pyongyang, the camera captures two young boys collecting scraps of litter from a very empty litter bin.
Yet what is really remarkable is what the authorities do want us to see – namely the process of indoctrination. At school, Zin-mi’s teacher tells her class they are going to learn a story about Generalissimo Kim Jong Il. What starts as a lesson in his exploits quickly turns into a lesson in hatred of ‘the Americans, their puppets and other enemies’, with the story and its conclusion endlessly repeated until each child can recite both by heart.
One cannot help wondering why the North Koreans want to show us their own propaganda, and how much of it they themselves believe. And this is Under The Sun’s great strength – it encourages us to question. In a scene inside a soy milk factory (in which Zin-mi’s mother is supposed to work), the script, with deadpan sincerity, and therefor with much comedy, goes something along the lines of:
Factory boss – ‘Comrades both adults and children like our soy milk so we must produce more. Comrade Zin-mi and her mother grew a flower for the flower show. Did you see it?’
Factory worker – ‘Zin-mi joined the children’s union, lets congratulate her mother’ [applause]
The workers themselves, always obliging, do not look convinced and have to be told to smile. Not being joyous enough or not doing it with enough patriotism are the two charges most frequently flung at these participants. Their uncertain glances and forced smiles give us tiny clues as to what they might think of the reality they are being forced to enact, but it is Zin-mi and her classmates who, in the moments when they drop their guard or, as happened just once, speak off script, tell us the most.
Under the Sun is available to watch now on Netflix