Documentaries are long-form investigative reports that try to portray true life events to illustrate or make a point. While not completely unbiased — who can be? — traditionally documentaries are in search of the truth. In Under the Sun, the effectiveness of the direction and the camerawork rarely calls attention to itself. Director Vitaly Mansky took to North Korea, but when he arrived he was met by the strict regime with a hostage-like environment that included taking away his and his crew’s passports as well as regular confiscation of cameras. The documentary starts as the crew sets out to record “a day in the life,” with Lee Zin-Mi, a young girl at the center of the documentary. However, when the crew arrives in North Korea, they find out that there is an additional crew assigned by the state to supervise the shoot.
Nonetheless, through this difficult environment, Mansky is able to show more than if he had been left alone. What we see, as the camera lingers, is the ease with which we can see the scale of the repressive regime. There are officers next to the cameramen that instruct and basically direct the shots, rehearsing lines with the “actors,” changing the entire plot. Mansky uses subtitles to showcase the information that they had before versus what is being presented. For example, when we meet Zin-Mi’s mother, she is presented as a soy milk factory worker, but the subtitles say that when the crew first met Zin-Mi she said her mother worked at a cafeteria.
The rehearsals by the appointed North Korean state-led crew showcase the heavy weight of the propaganda machine. The family and the entire cast do their best to please the North Korean officials and memorize the script that they have been given. But the camera doesn’t lie, and the keen eye of Mansky and his crew capture the little details that make this an outstanding documentary. When the crew visits Zin-Mi’s school, the camera shows how the children respond to a war hero: They are bored and don’t pay attention but are expected to stay in their seats and memorize what is being said. On another occasion, the camera stays fixated on what’s happening outside of Zin-Mi’s apartment. While there is a lot of care from the North Korean crew to not show the actual conditions for the everyday man in North Korea, in Under the Sun we get a few glimpses of what life is like over there. A train breaks down in the middle of a plaza, and the crammed train has to be pushed by those on board.
The genius of Under the Sun is how it shows the many instances where we can see the dichotomy between the official discourse and the actual lived conditions of North Koreans. It is at first a subtle difference, which only grows in clarity as the film progresses. The editing of the documentary definitely helps to make a clear point about what is happening. In this case, technique matters when conveying the main point of the documentary. Finally, what Mansky does well is point the camera to the corners that perhaps are taken for granted by Korean officials. He also offers tight close-ups of the subjects in the film, which open up the conversation about the internal struggle that happens when humans are subjected to the type of repression we see. In particular one of the culminating shots of young Zin-Mi is excruciating, as it is so telling of the negative impact of imposed constraints on minds, voices and actions.
Under the Sun runs 110 minutes, is in Korean with English subtitles and is not rated. I was able to catch a screening of the film at the AFI Silver Docs Festival. The film is now available on Netflix and Amazon. Note: you will support Independent Ethos by renting the film via the Amazon link.