Propaganda is one of the least universal modes of communication, and one almost feels a tiny sympathy for the North Korean authorities naive enough to think veteran Russian documentarian Vitaly Mansky would tow the designated party line with “Under the Sun.” But instead, the invited guest filmmaker ruthlessly mocks and undermines their intentions by simply revealing the heavily scripted artifice imposed upon this supposed look at average (but exemplary!) family life in Pyongyang.
The result is an awkwardly revealing act of subversion that is arresting however you take it: as propaganda deconstructed, failed or turned into a tragicomedy whose most stinging indictments lie mostly in what remains unseen. This fascinating curiosity — now destined to play everywhere except its subject nation, which has reportedly already tried suppressing its exposure — is beginning to open theatrically in various territories amidst a long festival run. Icarus Films’ U.S. release kicks off July 6 at NYC’s Film Forum, with Los Angeles and other markets following.
While Mansky deploys on-screen text sparingly (and no narration at all), an opening title card gives up this multinational co-production “documentary’s” game in characteristically deadpan fashion: “The script of this film was assigned to us by the North Korean side. They also kindly provided us with a round-the-clock escort service, chose our filming locations and looked over all the footage we shot to make sure we did not make any mistakes in showing the life of a perfectly ordinary family in the best country in the world.”
Our no doubt carefully vetted heroine is Zin-mi, an eight-year-old Pyongyang resident who can scarcely open her mouth without some pearl of nationalistic pride or gratitude toward the Great Comrade leaping out, as if spring-loaded. She and her parents live in a clean, bright, spacious apartment, with an apparently everyday dinner quite the sumptuous spread. Dad is an engineer at an exemplary garment factory, mom a cheerful worker at an exemplary soy-milk plant. The narrative, such as it is, revolves around Zin-mi’s joining of the Children’s Union, a gala event for the family that falls on the Day of the Shining Star, aka Kim Jong-Il’s birthday.
This last part is true, insofar as Zin-Mi is indeed taken into the Children’s Union for the film’s purposes. That as well as the late Great Leader’s birthday occasion all kinds of public spectacle (from speeches to a mightily kitschy climactic youth ballet/variety show). But nearly everything else here is questionable, because Mansky keeps the camera running between “takes” to show his Korean minder/manager feeding the subjects lines, or endlessly exhorting them to greater heights of gushing patriotic “joy.”
We eventually glean from that figure’s instructions that the family’s apartment isn’t their real abode. Later titles inform that the parents have likewise been “reassigned” different professions from their actual ones in order to show off preferred industrial locations. It’s not hard to detect an undercurrent of acute performance anxiety in these ordinary citizens (they don’t seem to be professional actors) called upon to portray “Up With People” versions of themselves in numbing take after take.
Occasionally we catch a glimpse of unstaged real life among citizens bicycling home from work, or riding the subway — though they invariably seem uneasy finding a camera pointed at them. But mostly everything is scripted and choreographed to a tee, whether in the revisionist historical dogma a teacher spouts repetitiously in the classroom or the rallies, memorials, parades and other public activities that seemingly fill every waking hour in this cold grey cement capitol.
One thing that can’t entirely be scripted is an eight-year-old girl’s emotions. There are several moments when the stress and exhaustion of playing what’s basically a demanding fictional lead role reduce Zin-Mi to tears — which of course, it was assumed would be left on the cutting room floor. While at about the two-thirds mark, “Under the Sun” begins to seem a bit attenuated, its obvious (if only implied) points already made, the ending is a stunner: Asked to think of something cheerful to calm herself, this little pawn of the state’s response inadvertently underlines the grotesquerie and pathos of an imagination entirely shaped by totalitarianism.
Though no government figures are interviewed, the nation’s dominating cult of personality is omnipresent in everything from murals to loudspeakers constantly blaring official rhetoric. Needless to say, what one reads between the lines here depends on audience knowledge of the less flattering realities (prison camps, widespread deprivation, etc.) that have leaked out despite the nation’s rigid intelligence control. But even the least politically aware viewer will grasp that “Under the Sun” portrays an attempted feel-good sham poorly disguising an abyss beneath. By the time we arrive at some sort of very colorful costumed mass rally, it seems as drab and lifeless as an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as directed by Jean-Marie Straub.
Providing the most direct negating commentary on so much unconvincing socialist triumph is Karlis Ausans’ mournful chamber score. Other design and tech elements are truly (ahem) exemplary.