DVD: Under the Sun (2015)

October 7, 2016 | By

UnderTheSun_sFilm: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Icarus Films

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  September 20, 2016

Genre:  Documentary / North Korea

Synopsis: Surreal, unsettling film comprised in part of unapproved footage smuggled out of North Korea by the director to show the manipulation by the North Korean government on what was designed to be a documentary on an ‘ordinary family’ in the DPRK.

Special Features:  2 news reports: “BBC: Fooling North Korea’s propaganda machine” (4:05) + Daily Vice: “Under the Sun is the Documentary North Korea Doesn’t Want You to See” (4:28).




Vitaliy Manskiy is a master of the unobtrusive camera, creating cinematic portraiture and allowing his human subjects to move about on their own, providing the director with small gestures that often reveal great meaning during the course of a documentary’s narrative.

Manskiy’s Pipeline / Truba (2013) captured the differing cultures, social status, and intertwined relationships of insular and large urban communities that peppered the length of a massive natural gas pipeline between Russia and Europe, and in Under the Sun the director boldly took a gamble in presenting human suffering under the watchful eye of North Korea’s totalitarian regime.

You could argue Manskiy was the perfect choice for the subject matter, being familiar with a similarly repressive regime in the former Communist Soviet Union, but it’s his eye for capturing the human missteps within perfectly composed frames depicting absolute order – in architecture, flower displays, and rich colours – that add great subtext to a documentary that was clearly scripted by the film’s North Korean production partners. (In some shots we see the parents of the central child reading their scripts.)

The central character is Zin-mi, an 8 year old girl who joins the Children’s Union on the Day of the Shining Star, the February 12 birthday of prior dictator Kim Jong-il. Manskiy follows the days leading up to the ceremony and the birthday of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, ending the film with a single, long-held shot that ever so simply captures the grim future that beholds children like Zin-mi.

Icarus’s DVD includes two short news pieces on the film’s release, and in the U.S. piece there’s an audience member who describes the people in Under the Sun “frightening,” but she clearly didn’t get Manskiy’s message: it’s not the people who are frightening, but the regime that controls every aspect of citizen’s lives from crib to grave.

Manskiy’s clever ploy was to keep the camera rolling before and after takes, then copy and delete the raw footage from the masters that had to be given to DPRK handlers and approved. After smuggling the footage out of the country, he assembled a truly unique snapshot of the sometimes figurative props, scaffolding, and fresh paint that makes up the artifice that was the project’s original focus: a perfectly ordinary family in Pyongyang living happily under the immortal sunshine of its past and current dear leaders.

Not unlike prior docs shot in the DPRK – The Lovers and the Despot (2016), The Great North Korean Picture Show (2013), and Comrades in Dreams (2006) – it’s the small details that hint at a less than ideal world, which in Under the Sun include large buildings where there are light fixtures but few illuminated bulbs (many shots are done by bright natural sunlight), textile workers who wear heavy parkas under their red uniforms to keep warm, and the human traffic directors often standing ready in the vast, empty intersections of the city.

Dinner at Zin-mi’s house consists of large bowls of many dishes the trio clearly can’t consume in one sitting, and the assigned DPRK dramaturge is seen tweaking the dialogue and performance for a wacky discussion on the importance of kimchi in life, in curing cancer, and other nonsensical wonderment.

The dramaturge’s presence is a constant, directing even strategic street crowds as Zin-mi’s parents say goodbye as she takes a bus to school, or workers arriving to the textile mill. Manskiy uses onscreen titles once in a while when there’s a major moment of fakery in play, as when the careers of Zin-mi’s parents are changed to jobs of greater importance: her father moves from journalist to an engineer at a textile factory; and her mother from cafeteria worker to an employee at an “exemplary” soy milk plant.

The dialogue exchanges are ridiculous, and the insincerity of the protracted topics are contrasted by bored visages, nose rubbing, and a child trying to stay awake during an oration by a heavily decorated Korean War veteran whose soon told to wrap it up because he’s rambling.

Officials make no claims of divine powers for the country’s dictators, but their feats of wisdom and victorious actions are cartoonish, such as a teacher telling Zin-mi’s class of how Kim Il-sung hurtled a rock at evil American seamen from a mountain to scare them away; and the war vet recounting how Kim Il-sung showed baffled troops how to fire a common rifle at American planes to scare them off, something ‘that had never been done before!’

Perhaps the most telling sequence of brutal inculcation comes in the classroom where Zin-mi’s teacher tells the girls of Kim Il-sung’s boulder-tossing heroics, then reads the same material from a book, then asks the students to read the text back to the class, then restate the same anecdote to the class – always repeating keywords to ensure the children never forget the official mythos of its ruling dynasty of despots.

The mythos also appears in schoolyard marches and songs extolling the fatherly brilliance and daily sacrifices of current leader Kim Jong-un, mass dance rehearsals involving ordered grids of colourfully clothed couples to further nationalistic tunes; and the every-present framed pictures, marble-framed mosaics; and giant Communist iconography that decorates homes, city streets, and forms central hubs where citizens must pay homage and show umbrage on official holidays like the Day of the Sun.

DPRK architecture owes its design to classic Soviet designs that dwarf humans by their sheer bulk, ordered lines of buildings and streets, and the masses of crowds and use of colours, uniforms, and flags. It’s no accident Manskiy evokes a bit of Leni Riefenstahl in some of the imagery, including a scene involving solemn tribute: Zin-mi and her parents’ slow walk up stairs to a dimly lit memorial-type hall evokes the long, grim walk as Hitler and two goons approach smoldering cauldrons for a similar tribute to a dead leader in Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935).

Like Pipeline, Under the Sun, has very slow pacing, so it’s not for all tastes, as Vitaliy likes to lead with images and natural sounds (with the occasional, beautiful score cue by Karlis Auzans) and allow viewers to absorb and pass their own judgments based on an aggregate of overt information and subtext. It’s a remarkable glimpse into a totalitarian world straight from the pages of George Orwell’s 1984. What’s frightening isn’t the people, but the fact millions must live in a world where everything is intricately controlled with brutal precision.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  — Composer’s Website
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