“Propaganda is also counter-propaganda. My idea was to shoot a film like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which is both those at the same time.”
“Have some kimchi, you have to eat lots of kimchi.” Eight-year-old Zin-mi nods, her head bent over the dining table in an apartment in Pyongyang, North Korea. “I will,” she tells her mother, the camera seeming to wait, patiently, on a wide shot of the small room. “I know it prevents aging and cancer.” Ah, her mother observes, “You know so many things.”
This early scene in Under the Sun (V lutsah solntsa) makes clear that Zin-mi is indeed an impressive child, obedient and bright, earnest and wholly deserving of her parents’ pride. As the documentary follows preparations for Zin-mi’s induction into the Korean Children’s Union on the “Day of The Shining Star” (Kim Jong-Il’s birthday), preparations that include learning songs and elaborate processions. This scene, at the table, would seem to be showing the family at home, eating kimchi and soup.
Then you hear something else, instruction from another man, off screen and then onscreen: “Don’t act like you’re acting in a movie,” he says, “Act naturally, like you do at home.” He suggests they shoot again, and also that they move the table to ensure a better shot. Then he waits while Zin-mi’s parents check their scripts.
The moment evokes at least two reactions simultaneously. If you might feel jarred by the exposure that the documentary isn’t quite real, you might also, at the same time, feel confirmed in your suspicion that this was the case. Thus far, Vitaly Mansky’s remarkable film — platforming across the US, opening 29 July in San Francisco — has presented Zin-mi during some awfully precise actions, passing by military drills and calisthenics, riding the bus to school, sitting in her classroom (“Let’s read it again, attentively,” emphasizes the teacher regarding a lesson on “how the respected generalissimo Kim Sung Il chased away the Japanese aggressors”). What you see now reframes those scenes, makes you think again.
Your rethinking may begin with what Under the Sun proceeds to show repeatedly; that is, the staging of scenes and dialogue by North Korean minders. From its start, the film reveals in a title card that “The script of this film was assigned to us by the North Koreans. They also kindly provided us with a round the clock escort services, chose our filmmaking locations, and looked over the footage we shot…”
As these orchestrations become visible, they also look insidious. “When we first met, Lee Zin-mi told us her father was a print journalist,” offers the filmmaker, “The Korean comrades decided, however, to make him an engineer at an exemplary garment factory.” This as the camera tracks after Mr. Lee making his way up a long, strikingly dark stairway, finally arriving at a meeting with employees where he approves a fabric and extols his workers’ recent “breakthrough”. The minder enters the scene to suggest a revision: “Say ‘a great breakthrough instead,'” he says. They do the scene again.
This scene suggests the minder trusts the filmmakers to remove the first take, but Mansky decided early on to bring “unapproved footage” out of the country, and so reveal more than the North Korean government might have anticipated. (He has his own experiences with “the concept of freedom and its lack”, he says, born in the Ukraine before it was part of the Soviet Union.) As alarming as this footage may be, the film makes its case quietly, the images speaking to truths beyond those provided by explanatory narrations.
Such quietness is all the more effective when occasional subjects take note of the camera. “According to Lee Zin-mi,” Mansky divulges, “Her mother works at a cafeteria, but during the shoot she’ll be working at an exemplary soy milk factory.” The camera cuts from a closeup of a rattling and steaming soy milk factory gauge to another, steam obscuring the frame. The metaphor extends as the minder enters the shot, his black suit standing out against the white porcelain walls and the workers lined up, their uniforms crisp, their aprons bright red.
This long shot, exquisitely angled, observes the minder as he instructs, “Let’s congratulate her,” instructs the minder, “Everybody say ‘Congratulations.’ Try to do it well.” He adds, off screen, “Try not to think about the camera, can you do that?” Cut to a closer shot, the workers shifting to prepare for their scene. One worker looks directly at the camera, and then she looks away, refocusing her attention. Along with her coworkers, she practices her smile.
It’s easy to see this and other instances of performance in Under the Sun as indictments of a manipulative government determined to make itself look good, to show off happy citizens’ compliance and conformity. But there’s something else going on here too, as the movie breaks down how movies get made, this one and others too, documentaries included. That’s not to say all documentaries’ scripts serve up propagandistic language or shiny surfaces to forge a fiction. All films tell stories, but not all are fictions. The story told by Under the Sun is multiply layered and complicated, at once true and performed, managed and illuminating.
These layers are visible especially because the film is so intently focused on Zin-mi, her fascinating face, her restrained gestures, her openness and also her caution, her obvious effort to please and her occasional and barely discernible frustration. She embodies and expresses the film’s essential dilemma, that no truth is singular, that no story is simple. Yet, you can share and understand Zin-mi’s story, enough that you feel for her confusion, her loss, and her gentle strength.