American news outlets offer an increasing abundance of reporting related to North Korea and the actions of its authoritarian government. However, with access to the country severely restricted, especially to foreign journalists, this reporting is often limited to broad coverage of events, both government-publicized and unintentionally exposed. In order to produce nuanced, informative journalism concerning the isolationist state, alternative routes of access must be found. In his film, Under the Sun, Russian filmmaker Vitaliy Manskiy finds one such route.
Under contract with Pyongyang officials to produce a propaganda piece about the North Korean way of life, Manskiy allows his camera to capture what takes place before and after each take, and then includes these moments in the film alongside scripted scenes. The result is not only a powerful work of art which offers unprecedented insight into the experience of the citizens of North Korea, but also a valuable journalistic work which could not exist without the fundamentally artful approach taken in presenting its story.
Just as North Korean leadership uses artifice and misinformation to project an image of stability, Manskiy lets the highly misleading script around which he’s expected to work form the film’s narrative. In this way, the structure of Under the Sun reflects the nature of the society it attempts to capture. These scenes alone reveal the extent of the brainwashing to which North Korea’s population is subjected, as the audience requires little assistance in recognizing their many deceptions.
However, the making of these revelations is not Manskiy’s sole objective. He includes numerous takes, focusing on the banter that occurs between each, and occasionally panning over to his Korean overseer (the film’s intended director) at the edge of the set as he prods the actors to provide more convincing performances. These moments deconstruct not only the artificiality of the hyper-idealized script, but also the facade of subservient bliss that North Koreans are expected to wear. As the construct of the propaganda film repeatedly falls apart on screen, it becomes increasingly clear that the humanity of these oppressed people persists, despite both the efforts of their government and the preconceptions shared by many Westerners.
Sudden moments of emotion punctuate some of the film’s most constructed scenes, creating compelling characters that humanize the oppressed population to which they belong. Images like those of a young student struggling to stay awake during a long-winded war story, a family laughing between takes of a phony dinner scene, and tears of pain and fatigue falling from a young girl’s eyes during a strenuous dance lesson force the audience to identify with a wholly foreign and seemingly unknowable people. In direct contrast with Western assumptions regarding North Koreans, the film is full of life and its characters are highly sympathetic.
This liveliness is drawn out and elevated by meticulously crafted frames which, like the structure of the film itself, reflect the highly constructed nature of the image that North Korea’s government presents to the world. Near the end of the film, during a nationwide celebration of former dictator Kim Jong-Il’s birthday, a ceremony taking place at a monument to the Great Leader is presented through vivid photography and extensive sound design. The sudden appearance of hundreds of Pyongyang residents, all bearing flowers with which to adorn the feet of the statue, is one of the most painstakingly choreographed moments in the film. Manskiy uses the artifice of the scene, and of Under the Sun in it’s entirety, to achieve a goal quite opposite to that of his chaperones.
Having spent a great deal of time developing and underscoring the humanity of leading character Zin-mi, placing her amongst hundreds of other North Koreans in so premeditated an event compels the audience to expand their empathy to encompass not just one little girl, but the entire oppressed people with whom she shares a home.