SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: “The Sun” referred to in the title of this documentary is Kim Il Sung, the Korean Communist guerrilla and self-publicist who set up the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea aka North Korea. Despite being dead, and being superseded by his son Kim Jong-il (“Dear Leader”), and then his grandson Kim Jong-un (“Respected Leader”), Kim Il-sung (“Great Leader”) is still regarded as the true head of the country with his ideas and his principles as essential to North Korean life as the sun (hence the appellation).
What is life like under “the Sun”? Few foreigners will ever really know. While South Korea has spent much time since the 1988 Seoul Olympics trying to be more open (their first democratic elections were held in 1987), the North has, for various reasons, been more reluctant to invite scrutiny and shrug off the isolationist tendencies of the Chosun era that saw the Korean peninsula dubbed the Hermit Kingdom.
The central premise of Under The Sun – and certainly the pitch given to North Korea’s film promotion unit Korfilm - is an opportunity to watch how a typical North Korean 8-year old, girl ascends into adulthood by joining the Children’s Union, a kind of Kim Il-sung primer. It’s a peek behind what’s left of the Iron Curtain and offers an idea of what North Korea purports to want for its citizens, even if it is unable to grant it.
Under The Sun is a co-operative venture between Russia, Latvia (where the Ukrainian director Vitaly Mansky has lived since 2014), Germany, the Czech Republic and North Korea. The central focus is Lee Zin-mi, an eight-year old girl who lives with her parents in one of Pyongyang’s downtown apartment blocks with all mod-cons (air-con, TV etc) and definitely more comfortable than the tourist hotel I stayed in when I visited the country for the Pyongyang International Film Festival in 2012. The girl goes to the best school, eats well and is articulate. Life cannot possibly be this good in North Korea? Can it?
Yeah, sure… and everyone in Australia lives with a view of the beach. It’s a set-up and the gotcha moment comes at the 20 minute mark, when Mansky leaves the camera running while the film’s Korean director and a government representative make adjustments to the family’s dinner scene, such as polishing the family’s already well-rehearsed dialogue about the value of kim-chi, and changing their seating positions for the benefit of the camera. It’s not the last of the alterations made by the “powers that be” during the shoot. Later on, the government scriptwriters change the occupation of Zin-mi’s father from print journalist to engineer and her mother is switched from cafeteria attendant to soy factory worker.
As an expose of the façade of prosperity that North Korea wants to present to the world, Under The Sun has a wry charm. Who do these people think they are fooling? Of course, you could ask the same of any country’s spin doctors and the answer would be: “themselves”. But an important detail to remember about this film is that, while Mansky is surreptitiously running his camera, the Korfilm personnel don’t even try to hide their machinations from the visiting film-makers. As a citizen of the former Soviet Union, Mansky would have known that documentary in a Stalinist state, is not a portrayal of reality, but as the State would have it be. Ironically, the tinkering with reality isn’t caught on camera because the North Koreans are being devious, but because they were naïve enough to trust their foreign visitors.
Not above some manipulation himself, a sombre dirge on the soundtrack (often accompanying depictions of nothing more sinister than cold weather) ham-fistedly underlines Mansky’s view of North Korea. Much more instructive is the footage of a couple Pyongyang’s street urchins. Less scrubbed or protected from the realities of life in an impoverished state than Zin-mi, the young boys fossick through garbage bins looking for food, cigarette butts and - are they phone cards they are holding? - in an effort to survive. These few seconds are more powerful than the use of loaded terms like “regime” and “generalissimo” or music that harks back to a black and white Cold War mentality. Having visited North Korea, I can vouch for the fact that the show presented to foreigners rarely matches the carefully hidden reality, but does propaganda of a different brand achieve anything more than reinforcing existing prejudices? Still, it’s an intriguing and grimly amusing look at the puzzle that is North Korea and offers a much franker view than all those clickbait news stories that the world (including me) seem powerless to ignore.