As previous documentaries ranging from the serious (“Kimjongilia”) to the frivolous (“Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang In Pyongyang”) demonstrate, North Korea is one strange place, a truly foreign country where they do things differently.
The nation is so strange and different, in fact, that each new glimpse inside — and “Under the Sun” is the latest and one of the best — involves us completely. As directed by veteran Russian documentarian Vitaly Mansky, this is a very particular kind of film in the way it reveals the stage-managed nature of this intensely regimented society.
The first documentary to have, at least initially, the cooperation of the North Korean government, “Under the Sun” recently made news for a different reason when New York’s Museum of Modern Art had to apologize after an assistant curator bumped it from a documentary festival out of fear of possible cyber retaliation from that rogue nation.
What Mansky found out when he started shooting, and probably always suspected, was that North Korea had more unusual ideas of what documentaries were than he did.
The director was presented with a scripted scenario about an 8-year-old girl named Zin-mi, raised by role model parents, who is about to become part of the prestigious Korean Children’s Union on the Day of the Shining Star, the national holiday commemorating the birth of former leader Kim Jong Il.
Scrupulous about filming what his ever-present minders wanted him to, Mansky also kept his digital camera rolling at all times, performing sleight of hand with different memory cards to ensure that the Koreans, who inspected the footage daily, never knew what he was doing.
As a result, we get to see how a nominal documentary was stage-managed to such a ferocious extent that even the folks who do the honors for this country’s compromised reality TV would be impressed.
When young Zin-mi delivers a “spontaneous” endorsement of the nutritional virtues of kimchi, the Korean national dish, at what is supposed to be a genuine family dinner, the film’s minder appears after the scene and advises her to “act naturally, like you do at home” before the retake.
Mansky was also fortunate in his cinematographers, Alexandra Ivanova and Mikhail Gorobchuk. The visuals in “Under The Sun” are always artful, providing haunting cityscape shots of the half-empty streets of capital city Pyongyang as well as stunning vignettes like Zin-mi and a classmate, immaculate in their school uniforms, singing softly together as they polish their already spotless school desk.
That scene points up one of the interesting paradoxes of “Under The Sun,” that its bizarreness means that the staged scenes are as interesting as what we’re not supposed to see because of the glimpse they give us of what business as usual must be like for the citizens of that country.
This comes out first with young Zin-mi, whose classroom we visit and listen in on as her zealous teacher tells these tots that “today, American scoundrels threaten us” and reads to them about how as a young man North Korea’s future founder, Kim Il Sung, threw boulders at Japanese landowners.
Then we see Zin-mi at that enormous Children’s Union ceremony, where ancient Korean War veterans, their chests completely covered with medals, help the youngsters tie their ceremonial kerchiefs. “All Americans are cowards,” one of these ancients says later. “They thought only of surviving and returning home.”
Similar scenes are manufactured for Zin-mi’s on-screen parents, who are given jobs created to enhance the propaganda value of the film, both toiling in factories where “our work is very important for our country.”
One of the most fascinating things about “Under the Sun” is the contradictory thoughts it inspires. On the one hand, there is the lure of seeing this singular place, where citizens salute an enormous bronze statue of Kim Il Sung and loudspeaker-equipped trucks drive the streets spewing propaganda about “building the best Communist country in the world.”
Yet “Under The Sun” also reminds us that, their dissimilar society notwithstanding, the North Koreans are not some alien race but people like us, trying to get by the best they can. The last image we see is a small tear on the face of a young girl, and nothing is more universally human than that.
“Under the Sun”
In Korean with English subtitles
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
Playing Laemmle’s Monica, Santa Monica, Playhouse 7, Pasadena.
Critic’s Choice. “Under the Sun.” North Korea is such a strange and different nation, that every documentary glimpse inside, and this is one of the best, involves us completely. - Kenneth Turan