North Korean propaganda is so ripe for satire that its darker ramifications are often lost in the laughter. “Under the Sun” literally puts them in closeup, as Russian filmmaker Vitaly Manskiy’s gripping experimental documentary follows an eight-year-old child struggling within the constraints of the country’s suffocating ideology.
Ostensibly an authorized project showcasing the state’s ebullient youth, “Under the Sun” was shot from a script provided by the regime, and footage was subjected to daily scrutiny. But Manskiy nonetheless manages to fashion this material into an ominous indictment of the country’s brainwashing tactics and absurd self-regard, mostly by just letting the camera roll. The insanity speaks for itself.
The scenario for “Under the Sun” contains the flimsiest of plots: Petite young Zin-Mi endures a series of routines in the process of joining the Children’s Union, a high-level coterie that engages in celebratory rituals and classroom instruction to honor their country’s legacy. Her family appears to live under glamorous conditions while engaging in successful factory work. But it doesn’t take long for this illusion to show its seams. The filmmaker played by the rules and still found a way to pierce through the bullshit.
Manskiy’s opening title card notes the extent to which North Korean authorities controlled filming conditions, providing “escort service” for the shoots and selecting the locations. Later, we learn that while Zin-Mi’s real-life father actually works as a print journalist, the government decided he should work in a garment factory. So there he is, talking to a handful of seamstresses, trying to figure out his job in the fictional universe his country has forced on him. His daughter, meanwhile, doesn’t fare much better. Soft-spoken and wearing a permanently distant gaze, she looks perpetually confounded by the rigid expectations surrounding her. Her inability to express as much is the movie’s heartbreaking core.
While Manskiy’s explanatory credits offer more context than necessary, he has found a brilliant way around the conditions of his shoot. Rather than simply including scripted scenes, he shows the production process as well. At key moments, a straight-faced man draped in black barks orders to his cast, forcing them to repeat lines and express themselves in happier terms. It’s less intriguing to watch the young girl participating in dances, factory workers lining up outside of their stalls, or the family discussing their home life, than the number of times they’re asked to do all those things again.
Yet the real shock factor comes from the propaganda itself. In one classroom, students are subjected to inanely worshipful tales of the late Kim Il-Sung, whose abilities include the apparent power to make stones rain down on his enemies. In their bastardized version of history, Kim faces down his Japanese enemies with ease, while the instructor blithely concludes that “they will not cheat us in the future.” America doesn’t escape unscathed, either. “American scoundrels and their puppets want to destroy us,” the teacher announces, and lets the students finish her sentence — “with military drills.” The camera drifts to the ceiling, where admiring portraits of grinning Korean leaders past and present look down on the room.
Another unsettling moment stems from a meeting between the children and a war veteran, who proudly declares that “all Americans are cowards” as the students chuckle and applaud. (He joins in.) Later, they engage in a boisterous dance to celebrate their heritage, only to be interrupted by a choreographer who demands that they do it again “more joyfully…and with patriotism.” Nobody questions the order.
“Under the Sun” was the subject of a recent controversy when it was pulled from a documentary series in New York out of apparent fear of North Korean retaliation, but it deserves an audience. For most viewers, the movie operates as a form of science fiction, portraying an alien world beyond the comprehension of anyone unfamiliar with its operations. But it’s actually a daring journalistic exposé that manages to reveal the complex nature of governmental oppression from the inside out. It doesn’t provide the full story, of course — the critical gaze of “Under the Sun” happens by way of implication, which is both key to its appeal and the essence of its limitations.
While it captures extraordinarily powerful moments of societal repression, other films go much further in interrogating the same setting. Soon-Mi Yoo’s delicate diary film “Songs From the North” portrays the psychological trauma of North Korean citizens stuck between allegiances to their homeland and historical trauma, while Jim Finn’s “Juche Idea” takes a deeper look at the endless parade of media used to manipulate the country’s inhabitants into seeing their country in a grandiose light. Comedian Mads Brugger’s “The Red Chapel” bears the closest resemblance to Manskiy’s project as the filmmaker also managed to gain governmental approval to shoot inside the country, in his case for slyly satiric purposes that showed just how much government workers strove to believe the lies forced upon them. But these are all nuanced attempts to wrestle with the peculiar nature of the country’s hubris and its devastating ramifications for people trapped by it. Meanwhile, the closest most Americans get to understanding the nature of North Korea’s problems are the cartoonish extremes of the hard-partying Kim Jong-Il in “The Interview.” In Manskiy’s film, the younger Kim is a phantom presence looming over every scene.
While less enticing as a complete narrative experience, “Under the Sun” is an enticing observational puzzle. Manskiy only editorializes during a handful of effective moments: The family slowly moves down an escalator as anonymous faces stream by, with solemn violin music emphasizing the melancholic alienation they all appear to share. This artistic license works far better than the occasional observations that appear onscreen, including one bit where Manskey observes that “the children probably live at school” since he wasn’t able to film them anywhere else. Manskiy finds a more effective vessel for such commentary in the face of his young subject, who bursts into tears during the final minutes while an off-screen figure scrambles to cheer her up.
“Try to think of something good,” she’s told, and obviously can’t — until the script she’s been fed since birth comes to mind, and temporarily buries her sorrow once more. Commissioned as propaganda, “Under the Sun” instead documents life inside its grip.
“Under the Sun” is now playing at New York’s Film Forum. It will expand to other theaters nationwide in the coming weeks.