Sydney ’16: Under the Sun review: Rear Window meets The Truman Show in Mansky’s DPRK approved portrait of life ‘under the sun’
A fascinating, yet sombre insight inside and outside the frame of the world’s most secretive and oppressive regime. Under the Sun review direct from this year’s Sydney Film Festival.
Ethnographic documentarian Vitaly Mansky is no stranger to penetrating observations of life inside problematic regimes – his 2011 film Motherland or Death looked at the reality of generational sentiments 50 years on from the Cuban revolution and his 2013 film Pipeline observed life along Russia’s Urengoy-Pomary-Uzhgirid pipeline – and whilst not the first filmmaker to document life inside the world’s most secretive and oppressive regime, his latest film Under the Sun, offers a fresh and unique perspective unlike any other.
Beginning with slides of personal photographs with stylised framing, followed by a well-timed ‘Action!’ thanks to Mansky’s Korean escort (whom I cheekily dubbed ‘the Korector’) and timely title card, audiences are immediately thrust into the film’s reality. A perceived reality of life in Pyongyang if you will, entirely scripted by the government of the DPRK (a.k.a. the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and closely controlled (around the clock) by ‘escorts’ assigned to the filmmaking team. Even the footage was scrutinised to ensure that no mistakes were made in showing ‘a perfectly ordinary family in the best country in the world’.
Surprisingly, it’s this insatiable need for perfection and control that makes Under the Sun such a riveting film to watch. Mansky and his DoP’s Alexandra Ivanova and Mikhail Gorobchuk don’t even bother deviating from the government issued script as they manage to capture everything left unsaid by simply continuing to run the camera during set-ups and after scenes end. Behind the strained smiles and automaton-like behaviours, the truth of life in Pyongyang emerges; that this is no ordinary family and this is most definitely, not real life.
From delicate strains of Korean approved music to speakers blasting party rhetoric to citizens across the city, wide-angled, smog hued shots show life in Pyongyang to be…leaden. Soldiers march past giant portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il in Kim Il-Sung Square square (an image eerily reminiscent of the imposing and austere Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg) as a handful of citizens walk determinedly out of frame. Vehicles travel down citizen-less roads and security forces lurk everywhere. Even the ‘Korector’ makes numerous cameos as he informs citizens (or comrades as they are called in Korea), that they are starting now.
Despite its austerity, light and warmth manages to unexpectedly shine through: from the rear-window teaser to the faces of Korea’s citizens. In one carefully coordinated community activity of gymnastic exercises in what looks to be a residential square, a young girl dressed in an unusually bright pink jacket looks on the scene totally bewildered as to what the hell is going on? Our sentiments exactly.
But this is not what Korea’s version of Under the Sun is trying to portray. Their heroine is Lee Zin-Mi (if this is even her real name). The daughter of two professional workers – her father is an engineer in an exemplary garment factory and her mother, a cafeteria employee at an exemplary soy-milk factory – Zin-Mi is preparing to join the Korean Children’s Union in the lead up to the ‘Day of the Shining Star’; her first step to becoming a part of the system created by the ‘Respected Generalissimo’ Kim Il-Sung. Under the Sun is meant to follow Zin-Mi from her days at the best school in the capital where she learns about American and Japanese scoundrels, their puppets and all their other enemies who want to ruin their socialist state to her family’s excitement and her struggle to learn patriotic Korean dancing before regaling in the pageantry of her special day.
Only permitted to shoot what and when they were told to, the real magic in Under the Sun occurs when its inhabitants think the cameras aren’t rolling and the people relax momentarily from the fake roles they were told to play. North Korea emerges as a real-life, fascist version of the Truman Show and their residents… lost souls systematically stripped of self-identity and fearful of non-compliance. But there are also beautiful moments of compassion, comradeship, and their childlike innocence. Not to mention, the absurdity of the entire story.
For example, the stilted dinner scene in the Lee’s home where no one eats and Zin-Mi and her ‘parents’ discuss the health benefits of eating and drinking Kimchi. The ‘Korector’, unhappy with the scene before him, appears from left of frame and directs Zin-Mi not to act like she’s acting in a movie and to act natural just like at home. Or similarly, the talk at Zin-Mi’s school by a heavily adorned and decorated war veteran who drones on about cowardly Americans who hunted children and bombed child graves during the war. As the long-winded speech concludes (much to one student’s relief as she tries desperately not to fall asleep -not that I blamed her), the soldier turns to the ‘Korector’ left of frame and asks “What should I say now?”.
But the saddest moment in the film is undoubtedly Zin-Mi’s reflection on what it means to now be a member of the Korean Children’s Union. In close-up, she shares that the moment is her transition into adulthood (at the ripe-old-age of 8) where you now feel responsible for your mistakes and wonders what else she should do for her respected leader. The pressure of the moment becomes too much that she starts to cry, albeit stoically. As the single tear rolls down Zin-Mi’s cheek, we hear the ‘Korector’ one final time whispering to a third party “Calm her down, tell her everything will be alright. Stop her crying”. But when the third party softly advises Zin-Mi not to cry and to try and think of something good, Zin-Mi quietly and innocently replies ‘I don’t know what”. What indeed!
Overall, Under the Sun is an intimate and fascinating glimpse inside the most closed off country in the world. A rare treat that will have you saddened, smiling, disgusted and wanting…to save them all.
Under the Sun review by Sacha Hall, Sydney Film Festival, June 2016.
Under the Sun is yet to be scheduled for screening in the UK but opens to New York audiences on 6 July 2016.