Starring: Lee Zin-mi, Choi Song-min, Lim Soo-yong
Director: Vitaliy Manskiy
Running Time: 106 mins
Under The Sun is a Russian documentary about Lee Zin-mi, a young girl who prepares to join the Korean Children’s Union on Kim Jong-il’s birthday. In the meantime, director Vitaliy Manskiy continues filming in between scenes to expose how the North Korean government stage-manages everything about life in the country.
In effect, this is two completely different films put together by force, and it doesn’t always make for the most enthralling viewing. However, director Vitaliy Manskiy bravely pursues his desire to capture real life in North Korea, and although the film is still full of numerous stage-managed performances throughout, it’s a documentary that grows in strength and emotion throughout, making for a compelling, albeit slightly frustrating watch.
Before I get into this film, I think it’s best to explain the context of how it was made. As you likely know, filming in North Korea is effectively impossible without official supervision. When it comes to making a full-blown documentary, the government come up with an entire script and story for the filmmakers to shoot, and then comb through the footage to make sure it doesn’t give any possibly negative depictions of their country.
That’s why you’ve got to admire the bravery that Vitaliy Manskiy has in getting some of the footage that he does. While there are long portions of this film that are dull due to the North Korean intervention, there are a few striking moments in which we see behind the facade of the staged world, and get a real insight into how the country operates on a day-to-day basis.
Now, unfortunately, that sort of footage isn’t particularly extensive, and is limited to a few short segments in between major sequences where the dynamic of the movie completely changes. It’s not particularly plentiful for very obvious reasons, but when we do see North Korean officials managing the actors (who are meant to be real people living real lives), or some of the daily goings-on of the inhabitants of Pyongyang, it brings a sobering reminder about how much the people of the country are lacking in freedom, a theme that continues up to the film’s very moving final scene.
On the flipside, half of the movie is a stage-managed, North Korean-orchestrated affair. The first 20 minutes for example, are a bland and frankly tedious series of events in which a young girl has some food with her family and attends class to learn and recite the history of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung.
Of course, that sort of story can be interesting, and there are North Korean films that push through the propaganda to be enjoyable and engaging, but what Manskiy does in this film is make each of the sequences that are controlled by the North Koreans as dull as possible, adding no background music and keeping very harsh and brutalist lighting, so as to emphasise the moments in which he has control over the movie, and the facade is finally broken.
As a result, Under The Sun features some fascinating ideas and brief moments of enthralling and unprecedented insight into the real North Korea. However, given that the majority of the film is still composed of the story that has been written by North Korean officials, and feels very uncreative in its propagandistic style, it can be a dragging and occasionally frustrating watch. I wanted to see far more from behind the scenes of the facade, but obviously, that’s not possible given the restrictions of the regime and the danger of going against them, so overall, I’m going to give this film a 7.6.