By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Russian director Vitaly Mansky mentions upfront that his new film, theoretically a documentary, has a script provided to him by North Korean authorities. “Under the Sun,” shot entirely in North Korea, and made entirely under the authority of the totalitarian North Korean government, is designed as a propaganda piece. It’s worth noting then how Mansky manages to subvert the nominal mission of the project. It’s worth noting too that North Korea honchos aren’t happy with the film and don’t plan to show it in that country. Mansky, then, must be doing something right.
He was also very lucky, and plucky, to get out of North Korea with his hide, and his crew, intact.
We follow the young girl Zin-mi Lee, who’s getting ready to join the Children’s Union as a step forward into adulthood. To join, she must be steeped in dogma about the country’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, and his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.
Mansky’s cameras linger long and with a little tedium, on the catechism of little girls learning the supposed heroics of the Kim family — their mightiness, righteousness, and steadfastness in the face of horrible enemies, most notably the “cowards” of the United States. He risks putting the audience to sleep, to slowly make the onscreen point that some of the girls are also falling asleep.
This of course runs counter to North Korean mandates. North Korean citizens are never supposed to be less than gushing about the Kims, the Supreme Leaders, essentially gods in the country.
Citizens must believe in the Kims as infallible. North Korea is the greatest country on earth, and eventually everyone will live in that manner.
The director subverts his government handlers in a few subtle ways. He keeps the camera running between takes, so he’s secretly recording how Zin-mi’s being coached, being talked through her lines and her actions so as to appear no less than perfect. Over and over, she goes until her handlers are satisfied. Same goes for her family, her family’s friends, co-workers, and the entire pool of folks radiating outwards from Zin-mi.
Mansky also left footage in, which the North Koreans assumed would end up on the cutting-room floor. At least twice, Zin-mi breaks down in tears. What’s being required of her is simply overwhelming. She is a small girl and she gets scared. The pressure becomes too much.
And while a great deal of the film’s essential tension lies in what you don’t see — what the government officials would not permit you to see, our understanding in the so-called Free World, how restrictive and dangerous North Korea is — the girl’s tears, matter-of-fact, soft sobbing, bring matters to a human scale. She is upset because she can not live up to what her elders want from her.
And in the end, to comfort herself, she begins chanting the catechism that’s been drummed into her.
North Koreans, judging by the film at least, spend most of their public life venerating the Kims. Although no Kim is ever seen directly, portraits and huge statues of them sit everywhere, even in private homes. I sat watching the film on a laptop, at a public library, where people could check out the books they wanted, read what they wanted, and do, within reason and library policy, how they pleased. Then they could go out on the streets for much the same.
Sometimes, even in these tense times, we need to count our blessings, on being so far from Zin-mi.
“Under the Sun” plays Aug. 5–11 at the Grand Illusion Cinema, 1403 N.E. 50th St. in Seattle’s University District. For prices and showtimes, visit grandillusioncinema.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.