Under the Sun
Over the course of one year, this film follows the life of an ordinary Pyongyang family whose daughter was chosen to take part in one of the famous Korean "Spartakiads". The ritualized explosions of color and joy contrast sharply with pale everyday reality, which is not particularly terrible, but rather quite surreal, like a typical life as seen "through the looking glass".
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★★★★ review by Jackson Kim Murphy on Letterboxd
I'm half Korean. Almost seventy years ago, my grandparents fled from their homes in the north and spent months trekking through mountains to escape a country that was being torn in half. They left family and friends behind, the sheer will of survival pushing them to the south. Every day since, they had to live with the knowledge that there are brothers and sisters they never came to know, that they likely have distant cousins that are trapped in Pyongyang. As for me, I watched this after a day of college classes (several of which I skipped) in the comfort of my apartment while eating a ten-dollar sushi roll. I grew up in a family with economic stability. The biggest hardship I had as a child was sharing a room with my brother. I don't speak Korean. My grandfather passed when I was a baby and my grandmother lives thousands of miles away; I'm lucky to see her once a year. My heritage has always been a distant thought to me, only really crossing my mind when I think about my mother. I pass as white. I grew up as white. I have always felt white.
Under the Sun is monumental, an exercise in editing as auteur that surreally deconstructs propaganda and myth in real-time. The documentary is composed of two components: scenes from a film corroborated by the North Korean government, and extra footage from the shoot leftover from the continuously rolling cameras. It speaks in contrasts that, though obvious, are nonetheless striking in their tonal whiplash. Colorful choreography and wide smiles rise and set, their brightness fading to reveal empty shells. The directors walk into frame, instructions are given, and the film slyly transforms the lie of the art into the subject itself. It oscillates between bursts of the hysterical and stretches of boredom, always jaw-dropping in its ghost town gloom. Flowers are collected in bulk. Streets are barren. Smiles are masks. The images don't feel real, but they are. These are real people. These are everyday lives.
Everybody already knows North Korea is crazy, but its crushing stagnancy has never registered with me until now. Though Under the Sun doesn't expose new complexities to the country, it builds on the existing narrative of a pathetic society of illusion by looking at it through the eyes of children. They behave exactly as any child would. They talk in class. They chase one another. They are overcome with tears. Seeing their innocence, their excitement towards the world, being crushed by a militaristic agenda is absolutely heart-breaking, especially in contrast with the blank stares of their parents. This is the closest I've come to understanding the magnitude of my family's history, the future that my grandparents bravely retreated from. Some alternate dimension version of me celebrates the Day of the Shining Star every year and goes home hungry every night. Watching the creation of propaganda, the effacing of sorrow in real time, is devastating in its juxtapositions, but it's also the film's inevitable, but only, flaw. Even the final product has the fingerprints of the North Korean government all over it. I can't help but wonder what lies just outside the frame. Then again, perhaps some things are better left unseen.
Ranking 2016 (at #2)
★★★★½ review by katie h. on Letterboxd
maybe if we look at something long enough we can understand it. maybe if we hear someone speak, about their self, their country, their family we can gain insight into those things.
when speech is so severely restricted, how do we understand what's happening? we can percieve what is presented to us, absorb our surroundings, but how do we truly understand it? what is real, what is staged.
cold. lonely. long stretches of silence and looking makes time seem inaccessible. we exist as we are in this moment, but we don't know how long we've been in this moment. everything you see will be forever up until the time that it isn't.
speaking is miscommunication. looking and seeing and watching is a little better. maybe we can't understand, but maybe we can acknowledge.
(after this film I got sucked down a wiki hole about north korean prison camps and I'm never sleeping again bye)
★★★½ review by amyjackson on Letterboxd
I was most excited for this out of all of my NZIFF films mostly because of the purity of the cinematography in the trailer. and that did not disappoint, I found this film beautiful and even the interminably long scenes of nothing much happening felt very impt
however, noticing that a lot of reviews use the phrase "reality" of life in N Korea when describing what this film shows, and I rly hesitate to agree. The film is a Western idealisation of a N Korean idealisation, and while that (for me) is interesting viewing, I walked away feeling that I still didn't know what life is like for North Koreans, but I know what the Russian view of N Korean propaganda is. Convoluted paragraph but its hard to explain without seeing
For me, the only realism was found in Zin-mi, an 8 yo "representative" for life in NK, and the only time I was moved was when she cried, or got stressed, like any 8 yo girl would anywhere in the world when being incessantly coached and filmed and asked questions
★★★★ review by Todd on Letterboxd
A Russian crew was granted access to North Korea to make a movie, scripted by the North Korean government, that would follow a family in North Korea as their little girl plans to participate in a ceremony to celebrate the birth of former North Korean General Kim Jong-il. The film is meant to be a happy propaganda film that shows a number of separate industries in North Korea. The catch, that makes this film fascinating, is that the Russian crew snuck out extra footage and went off script so that the audience can see that the happiness and contentment in the film is manufactured.
An excellent documentary for anyone interested in Korea, Japan, Russia, US foreign affairs, communism, and the general process of propaganda and oppression. If none of those topics are appealing to you then you would likely find this movie slow.
This is a very unique film unlike anything that I have personally seen in my life. It is fascinating to see the out-takes and footage that North Korea didn't want to be in the film. The little girl in the documentary is trying so hard but you see her occasionally overwhelmed by the pressure of the film, the final scene is especially heartbreaking.
★★★★ review by Melissa Tamminga on Letterboxd
Capsule review for Seattle Screen Scene, SIFF 2016:
“My father says Korea is the most beautiful country in the eastern part of the globe. Korea is the land of the Rising Sun.”
Granted rare access to North Korea, documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky follows the story of a young girl who joins the Children’s Union and prepares for the Day of the Sun, birthday of Kim Il-Sung, conqueror of the "American scoundrels." Working around Korean handlers by filming before “Action!” is called or by lingering on drooping eyelids and fidgeting fingers, the camera captures extraordinary, unscripted moments. Such spontaneity, juxtaposed with the official Korean script that demands its subjects act “with joy” and “patriotism,” offers a complex, poignant portrait of life in a rigid regime.
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