Vitaly Mansky’s documentary Under The Sun is really two films, threaded together: one a carefully crafted lie, and the other something closer to the truth. A child of the former Soviet Union, Mansky has spent much of his career recording life in post-communist Russia, while occasionally taking his cameras to places like Cuba, where some vestiges of the youth he remembers remain. Back in 2012, the director began communicating with cultural liaisons for the North Korean government, asking to shoot a movie in their country. After years of negotiations, the North Koreans finally agreed to let in Mansky’s crew, but provided him with a script, a subject, and escorts to make sure that he didn’t deviate from their plan. He kept his cameras running surreptitiously, making both the propaganda piece he’d agreed to and an exposé of how it was staged.
North Korea is so cut off from the rest of the world that even if Mansky had just followed orders, he’d have come back with something valuable. He was supposed to tell the story of Zin-Mi, an 8-year-old Pyongyang girl going through the rite of passage of joining the Children’s Union. While she prepares for the ceremony at school, her parents go through ordinary days as valuable assets to their highly productive factories (one producing soy milk, the other clothes), where they accept the hearty congratulations of their adoring co-workers for all of their daughter’s recent success. It’s all blatant hokum, akin to the old American industrial films about how to be a better employee and citizen. But the phoniness is redeemed by the exoticism of the surroundings: the enormous buildings, the eerily empty streets, the massive pro-proletariat sculptures, and the wall-sized posters of North Korea’s glorious leaders.
Periodically, Mansky overlays text to explain the parts of Under The Sun that are brazenly fake. For example, Zin-Mi’s parents don’t actually work at those factories, which means their “co-workers” don’t know enough about them to extemporaneously praise their daughter for her admission to the union, or for her fine entry at a recent flower show. By filming on the sly, Mansky captures the extent to which the government stage-managed this project, from coaching the factory workers to “joyfully” offer good wishes to instructing Zin-Mi’s family to have a casual dinnertime conversation about the health benefits of kimchi. In some of the movie’s most haunting moments, the handlers don’t even intercede before citizens correct themselves, repeating a line with a bigger smile or an even more preposterous factoid.
There’s a limit to just how many curtains Under The Sun can peek behind. Because of the nature of the shoot, Mansky never gets any private time with anyone, and no one ever winks or rolls their eyes at his cameras to hint at what’s bogus and what’s legit. It’d be a mistake even to assume that Zin-Mi’s “typical” school day—where she hears Korean history lessons that combine anti-capitalist screeds with tales of military leaders performing feats of superhuman strength—is what she actually experiences when no one’s filming her. The truths revealed in this film have more to do with the North Korean government’s self-consciousness about how they’re perceived by foreigners. Here, they seem desperate to appear productive, congenial, devoted, and above all, happy.
As Under The Sun rolls on, there’s less and less juice to Mansky’s method of letting scenes of “daily life” play out long enough for the authorities to step in. But the bright, artfully framed imagery and Karlis Ausans’ melancholy orchestral score combine to add extra layers of meaning to scenes as mundane as government workers clearing away the mounds of flowers left at national memorials. And though he didn’t select her, Mansky has a fascinating heroine in the young Zin-Mi, who can’t always control her emotions. When she breaks down crying during a recitation of a speech she’s struggling to learn, the handlers urge her to clear her head by remembering “something good.” It’s there that the biggest flaw in the government’s plan for this film is exposed: They’ve given Zin-Mi an exemplary fake life, but apparently failed to give her much of a real one.