Review: North Korea tries to steer a documentary
“Under the Sun” manages to make North Korea seem even more loony and scary than it already appears to be, which means way loony and way scary.
Even more problematic, way incompetent. Ukrainian director Vitaliy Manskly was allowed to bring a camera crew to the embattled country, ostensibly to document the progress of a young schoolgirl, Lee Zin-Mi.
Instead, when he arrived, he discovered North Korean officials had already written a script for his “documentary” and would be orchestrating everything he shot, making sure that no footage of the “real” North Korea would be filmed. On the rare occasion that an unwitting North Korean stumbled into the camera’s view they would be shooed away.
So what Manskly did was keep all the footage that shows North Korean officials trying to direct the movie. The results are at times hilarious, at times numbing — Did they really think educational brainwashing would look good to the outside world? — and consistently worrisome. These people are jokes, albeit jokes with nuclear bombs.
We follow the sympathetic, if emotionally stretched, Lee Zin-Mi as she attends a pristine school, where she’s relentlessly taught myths about her leaders and Americans. We follow her father, who is apparently a writer but has been transformed into an engineer at a garment factory for the film, as he goes over his lines and accepts applause from his fellow, somewhat confused workers. (They’ve never seen the guy before.)
And we see the family sit down to an opulent meal over and over as they try to get some dialogue about the health benefits of kimchi right. After a while, Manskly has made his point and the film could probably lose 15 minutes, but at the same time you can see how it would be hard not to show all this stuff.
It’s all very amateur hour in terms of propaganda, filled with stirring odes to Kim Jong-un and his predecessors, colorful marching processions and lots and lots of on-cue clapping. (These people clap like their lives depend on it, which they might.)
But there’s also a very real little girl in all this, a point Manskly drives home at the end. And you have to fear for both her and her family — not to mention the idiots scripting the thing. If North Korea thought this was going to make the country look any more sane, somebody messed up badly. And somebody may pay a price.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
‘Under the Sun’
Running time: 106 minutes
At the Detroit Film Theatre