Recently, Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, was assassinated in Malaysia. Even though the investigation is still ongoing, the North Korean government is alleged to have committed premeditated murder to remove the most liberal member of the ruling family. This incident reinforces the perception of North Korea as one of the most inscrutable and insular nations in the world. The film Under the Sun (2015) takes a look at the reality of a society where freedom is completely absent by placing the spotlight on a single family in Pyongyang.
Under the Sun, a documentary directed by Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky, unveils one of the most mysterious societies in the world. The original intention behind the production of this film was to utilize it as propaganda for North Korea. However, the final result turned out to be the opposite thanks to Mansky’s efforts. The courageous efforts behind this meaningful film have been recognized with several accolades, including the Best Documentary Feature Film at the 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival.
The film mainly portrays the ordinary lives of a girl named Jin Mi and her family residing in Pyongyang. However, as the movie proceeds, the extent to which the North Korean government intervenes in filming and fabricates every aspect of the family’s life is revealed. Consequently, the film actually becomes an exposé of how propaganda is created and reality distorted in a totalitarian society. Viewers are able to see how the government brainwashes its citizens and eventually subsumes them into the regime by manipulating their entire lives.
Because of its uniqueness, the film has an interesting history in terms of its production and release. While it was supposed to be propaganda, Mansky decided to disclose the truth after realizing that everything introduced to him by the North Korean government was fake. Therefore, the shooting had to be confidential, and he had to submit a different film to the government to avoid censorship. As a result, the government has strongly denounced the release of this film, making it difficult to be widely seen in countries such as South Korea. Interestingly, Jin Mi started to appear in the North Korean propaganda after this movie was released.
By utilizing the features of a documentary, Mansky effectively voices his criticism of the North Korean government. The documentary form allows the film to act as a powerful whistleblower, presenting the reality of a society that otherwise completely avoids exposure. Therefore, viewers who previously had to rely on their imagination to envision North Korea can now fully understand the social atmosphere and the government’s domination of society. In particular, because a propaganda is typically full of fabrications, the fact that Mansky films the process of North Korea producing propaganda highlights the gap between reality and ideals. As a result, the image of a happy society that the government wants to build is completely destroyed.
Another effect of this documentary is that the viewers can observe the systematic process of indoctrination employed by the North Korean government. The various means utilized by the government to brainwash its citizens, starting from childhood, are presented in the film. For instance, the education that Jin Mi receives at elementary school is centered on the glorification of authority and the distortion of history. Consequently, freedom of thought is not permitted right from the start, producing citizens who are loyal subordinates and lacking cognizance. Viewers can thus sympathize with North Koreans who have no choice but to live their chosen lives.
One impressive scene is at the end when Jin Mi responds to questions asked by a government official. When the official asks her thoughts about joining the youth organization, she reveals her strong loyalty to the government. Then she suddenly sheds tears as if she cannot resist the pressure that she is living under. These tears perhaps symbolize the inherent aspiration of North Koreans for freedom and normal lives. The cruelty of the government is exposed in the next moment; she responds by repeating the pledge of allegiance when asked to recite her favorite poem. Here, viewers realize the seriousness of the suppression in North Korea, where a child cannot even cry out loud when she wants to.
▲ North Koreans heading towards statues of their leaders. Provided by villagevoice.com.
In addition, the images of Pyongyang’s streets accompanied by background music is the most effective technique that Mansky adopts to explain North Korea. He filmed Pyongyang and its residents at dawn and in the evening, particularly focusing on the facial expressions of them in various places including the subway and the streets. One interesting observation here is that, regardless of gender or age, everyone’s face seems to be gloomy and frozen without any sign of delight. Mansky cleverly adds classical music with sorrowful melodies as a background to these grotesque scenes, effectively conveying the bleak atmosphere of Pyongyang.
Through this film, Mansky provides an opportunity for viewers to reflect on the image of a dead society where cognizance and consciousness are nonexistent. In modern democratic societies, everyone can think and act in the way they believe in and everyone has the freedom to decide the direction of his or her own life. Because this is guaranteed by law and is unquestionable, most people tend to take them for granted. However, this film provides a raw portrayal of a reality in an extreme society where those fundamental prerequisites are absent. Consequently, it allows those who underestimate the value of freedom to reconsider how privileged they are to live in a liberal society.
At this moment, the people in North Korea are still suffering from the oppression of a dictatorial government. A simple thing that people around the world can do to help them is to keep their attention on the anti-humanitarian conduct of the government. If social awareness about North Korea is not persisted, the dark and hopeless society may never change, leaving an uncountable number of people victimized.