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The Current Debate: An Unreal Reality in North Korea

The conversation around an unusual new documentary, Vitaly Mansky’s Under the Sun.
Under the Sun, Vitaly Mansky’s new documentary about life in North Korea, was officially co-sponsored by the North Korean government, which furnished the Russian filmmaker with a script, a model Pyongyang family, and an escort of government officials, including censors. But Mansky and his team secretly duplicated their footage each day before it was reviewed, and left the country with a full copy of what they recorded.
The unabridged footage is surprisingly powerful: though we only see scenes from the state’s script, which centers on a young girl named Zin-Mi, Mansky simply leaves the camera rolling between takes, while government minders attempt to direct the performers to better demonstrate how happy and productive they are. The disparity between this “behind-the-scenes” footage and the rehearsed takes is the film’s main device, per Wendy Ide at Screen Daily:
Zin-Mi’s parents are shown to be high-status workers in ‘exemplary’ workplaces – her father is an engineer in a garment factory and her mother works at a soy-milk factory. Except they don’t. An on-screen title reveals that Zin-Mi previously told the film crew that her father is a print journalist and her mother works in a canteen.
The forewoman at the garment factory is required to make a rousing speech announcing that they have exceeded their government quota, praising the engineer for his work. Mansky includes each of the many rehearsals, and the anxious twist of the woman’s hands between takes as the minder berates her team for their lack of convincing zeal. By the final take, the excess production has gone from 150 percent above the quota to a full 200 percent.
As Eric Kohn writes at IndieWire, Mansky’s approach creates a fascinating document that is also a bold critique of the North Korean government, if a limited one:
“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.
Those limitations include what might be called the film’s emotional remove—a lack of unscripted or unsupervised moments, some of which Mansky may have excluded in an effort to keep the citizens he filmed safe from government retribution. In the view of Jesse Cataldo at Slant Magazine, however, the more significant omission is any illustration of the wider political context either inside the country or on the global stage:
Some small insight is provided into the exhaustion of living under a dictatorship in which performance is paramount, with additional illumination of the vain pageantry undergirding military despotism, but the film ultimately ranks as little more than a morbid curiosity. Despite its subversive potential, Under the Sun only succeeds at telling us what we already know, failing to adequately elucidate the broader workings of state power or the bared sub-structure of the government propaganda works on display here.
Cataldo has a fair point—the film doesn’t offer much historical or contemporary insight into North Korean politics. But that’s also probably not Mansky’s concern. In interviews, he explains his interest in terms of wanting to understand what his parents’ lives might have been like in the Soviet Union, and as Ben Sachs notes at Cine-File, that focus on the personal impact of an authoritarian regime is very much evident in the film itself:
Mansky exposes numerous little untruths as a means of confronting the large untruths on which the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is founded—namely, that the country's citizens enjoy greater freedoms than people of other countries and that North Korean leaders have their citizens' best interests at heart. Throughout SUN, Mansky cuts to shots of people in Pyongyang on their way to work or taking public transportation, the crowds moving in such an orderly fashion that they seem to have been choreographed. These are potent images of social control on a mass scale; the value of Mansky's film is that it allows one to understand how such a phenomenon feels on an individual level.
Sachs’ suggestion of mass-scale choreography approaches what is most disturbing about Under the Sun, which is that the control the government exerts on the family in front of Mansky’s camera is not unusual. There is hardly any difference between their performances and the way other, anonymous people move through the capital city: it’s all scripted by the government. Dennis Vetter, writing at Senses of Cinema, observes that any documentary filmed in such a place must confront a fundamental disassociation from reality:
In North Korea, there is no reality to document. Reality is ideology is fiction. The identity of these people remains obscure. Their life has been written, staged, imagined to become image. Mansky is controlled, as are his movements, his crew, his shots. But he films more than he is allowed and steals his material, to unveil how his images were meant to be forced under the authority of a system. What is staged for a purpose, for Mansky’s film to communicate an imagined North Korean society to the outside world, carries the weight of an ideology with such intensity that it reaches the level of parody. Mansky explains how instead of shooting a film he could have simply edited parts of the regular North Korean TV program with almost the same effect. But then we would have missed the tiny moments when the illusion breaks, when an apparatus is revealed in its depressing as well as comic dimensions. In his film, the possibilities of several films collide.
It’s this collision of possibility—in a place where there is nearly no such thing as possibility—that renders Under the Sun more than a mere curiosity. The most crippling lack of freedom it reveals is not physical, but intellectual: as Mansky put it to The Guardian’s Carmen Gray, “In the Soviet Union people of course didn’t have freedom, but they were free inside their minds. In North Korea there is no such kind of freedom. That’s the tragedy of the society. They just don’t imagine that there’s another kind of life.”
The Current Debate is a weekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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