Under the Sun [2015] – An Unparalleled Access to a ‘Perfect’ Family

Under the Sun

Russian documentary film-maker Vitaly Mansky conducted lengthy negotiations with the authorities of Pyongyang, North Korea, which is ruled by a totalitarian regime. North Korea (or its official name – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) upholds its own brand of hereditary power transfer. Kim dynasty in North Korea is a three-generation lineage of leadership, descending from first leader Kim Il-sung, when he came to rule in 1998. The late Kim Il-sung is presented with a dubious titleEternal President of the Republic and his grandson Kim Jong-un continues the regime, riddled with abominable human rights abuses and bizarre cults. The lack of true, verifiable information and the mysterious inner workings of North Korean government have gained much interest among the Western media. But, still no detailed video account came forth from the secretive country. While Hollywood (in “The Interview”) through its own brand of crude, nonsensical farce approached life inside North Korea, Vitaly Mansky’s documentary “Under the Sun” (2015) is more about prying through the shiny propaganda image harbored by Kim Jong-un and his scared pawns.

Mansky spent nearly one year in North Korea and accepted the full terms of the country’s authorities whom insisted upon certain strict rules. The chief rule is to allow the local officials to choose the documentary’s subject matter. The other vital rules commanded Mansky to film only in pre-approved locations, to submit the footage so that they can correct the ‘mistakes’. Mansky agree to all such rules and shot-upon the script chosen by officials. The beginning of the documentary announces what Mansky was supposed to film: to shoot the cheerful life of one supposedly representative family. The family’s angelic eight year old daughter, Lee Zin-mi, is about to join the Korean Children’s Union, on the eve of birthday of former leader Kim Jong Il. The celebrations are titled ‘The Day of the Shining Star’.

Zin-mi attends the best school in Pyongyang (the capital city) and her history lessons are filled with magnificent tales of their brave leader winning over ‘coward Americans’, ‘Japanese aggressors’, and ‘traitorous land owners’. The girl’s parents work in exemplary workshops and are always smiling to share how their workers have exceeded production targets. After work, the family gathers for a sumptuous supper and has a hearty chat about their supreme leader, reciting his patriotic slogans. In the weekends the parents attend massive socialist parades. Isn’t life in the land of rising sun so shiny? Yes, except from the fact that it is far from the reality. Mansky makes a nuanced, intimate portrait of Zin-mi that the reality creeps through the cracks of this utopian fantasy. He might have submitted all the footage to government censors, before leaving North Korea. And, I don’t know how Mansky was able to retain the visual of the little girl, dozing off when an aging war veteran tells a tedious, tall tale about the ‘great leader’.  Anyhow, the director has used the footage in a subtle way to provide a fitting commentary on the Korean propaganda and on its politics of non-thought.

Film-maker Vitaly Mansky in Pyongyang, North Korea

Film-maker Vitaly Mansky in Pyongyang, North Korea

Mansky includes all the retakes and coaching sessions before and during every scene, when the officials spell out the ‘right’ words for the family members or industry workers to say on camera. This makes up for the first crack on the fraudulent spectacle. Gradually, real details are pasted on the screen as we get to know how the represented family hasn’t always lived in a lavish flat and how Zin-mi’s parents were suddenly given top positions in state-owned factories (her father was a reporter before becoming production engineer at textile plant for the documentary’s sake). In another shocking, revelatory moment, Mansky announces that he don’t know whether Zin-mi lives with her parents. Although, we see the family having a lavish dinner in the sparsely furnitured flat, the reality is that workers live in ‘work barracks’ and children at their school. It is an arrangement to make the citizens fully concentrate on their respective ‘duties’.

American writer, film-maker and political activist Susan Sonatag comments on how a communist, totalitarian regime polarizes everyday activity so sharply that there would be no longer such a thing as ‘private life’. “Under the Sun” serves as a testament to that statement. On a beautiful, sunny morning Zin-mi spends her time memorizing a mythological story about their supreme leader. In the dinner table, family members aren’t asking to each other ‘how was your day?’; the conversation only lingers on patriotic stories. We see random stooges of government invading what’s supposed to be the family’s private space, demanding retakes so that the family could praise their ruler a little better. We saw how a consumer society turns one’s life into a form of entertainment in “Truman Show”. Here, we are shown a totally opposite form of society, but the results remain the same. Both are impersonal systems, designed to monitor people so as to make them ‘behave well’. Close-up shots are put to use with perfection which reveals how forced the smiles are and conveys the paranoia-afflicted gaze. Director Mansky keeps the unceasing blabbering of the supervisors to the background, in order to keenly study the face & movements of the participants. This tactic slowly breaks down the fourth wall (the final, spontaneous emotions of Zin-mi will stay with us for a long time). Even though, we don’t get the whole picture about the state machinery, it is this unwavering, fixed look on the people exposes the brutality of living in such a nation-state.

8 year old Lee Zin-mi, while getting inducted into the quasi-military children's union.

8 year old Lee Zin-mi, while getting inducted into the quasi-military children’s union.

While we persistently debate on capitalism or communism, the real division we fail to acknowledge is the ‘politics of thought’ vs ‘politics of non-thought’. It is this particular division that might increasingly play a part in creating future societies, unable to do any critical thinking or possess any individual thoughts. The politics of thought vs non-thought is the true battle of good and evil. The politics of non-thought could be fostered in an strictly controlled environment as in North Korea or it could be breeded in a easily manipulated democratic society, like that of ours (India) or in America (Isn’t Trump’s statements against Islam and immigrants is a form of name calling as the North Korean children do against Japan and ‘cowardly’ Americans). The primary goal for ‘politics of non-thought’ is to design a propaganda of we vs them (enemy). And, it is easier for the masses to adopt ‘non-thought’ because there is nothing complex about it; all you got to do is hate a hostile group your government says is hostile. When the Pyongyang authorities cautiously design the expressions of citizens in “Under the Sun”, we are clearly looking at irreparably rotten version of non-thought politics.

But, still something seems to be missing in “Under the Sun” to make it the best documentary made about a police state. May be it’s because, Mansky punctures the illusion of falsely crafted images at a very earlier point that all we get from then on is recurring exhibition of facades and camouflage. Like in many propaganda features, the elaborate showmanship contrived by rulers only becomes tedious after a point. The documentary does confirms what was alleged to be a gossip about North Korea proposed by jealous western media. We get the chance to reflect on the large-scale repression of a society, but the documentary keeps on hitting the same note, depriving us of any new insights. Apart from the final episode involved with Zin-mi’s dancing classes, the other scenarios keeps on showing the depressing charade made by state mechanism. It might have been so hard for Mr. Mansky to dig into the deepest, darkest corners of this police state, although I feel that a perfect balance hasn’t been attained between political statement and human interest story. The camera pans do offer new atmosphere, but nothing enlightening to arrest our concentration. Nevertheless, “Under the Sun” (110 minutes) is a must watch for those interested in Geo-politics & political ideologies as it lays bare the pomp of a choking state apparatus.


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