Vitaly Mansky’s Under the Sun is an absorbing investigation of North Korea

P. Stuart Robinson (1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.


Karlovy Vary 2016: Maybe you think you have North Korea all figured out? Then Vitaly Mansky’s Under the Sun will make you think again!

It might just be the strangest place on Earth. In fact, it’s so strange it may not readily be approached or observed. Do we even know what is is? We can find it on the map and listen to the speeches but we’ll be no closer to what lies behind the façade – that dispiriting mask of humourless bombast and propaganda. It’s hard to get in, even harder to get out!

Yet once in a while, someone, somehow will open up a chink of light, however briefly, and let us peek inside. In the right hands, a film camera is a great way to pull off this unlikely feat. One couldn’t wish for a steadier pair of hands than those of Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky, nor for a more absorbing investigation of North Korea than the film he presented recently at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF). Here is a real taste of life under the sun.

This is revelatory stuff, documentary film at its best, lifting the lid as only the probing eye of the camera can. Such achievements don’t come easy, however, and the seasoned Vitaly Mansky took a lot of risks (and not just on his own behalf) to get this one in the can. At any rate, he managed to scratch beneath the surface and expose something we were never meant to see. The powers-that-be devote considerable energy to preventing just such a chink of light as this from shining through onto its ‘ideal society.’ So how did he pull it off? Well, watch and see!

We find ourselves in a Spartan-looking flat and we feel the taut suspense of an encounter with something terribly strange. We’re in a North Korean family home! What could be stranger? They have apparently just sat down to dinner, and we are waiting expectantly to observe them ‘in action.’ Finally, a glimpse of everyday North Korean life! But what’s wrong?

Vitaly Mansky at Karlovy Vary.

The moment seems unnaturally prolonged as parents and child continue to sit, cross-legged, at the table, saying and doing nothing. They are clearly waiting for something. Then, finally, two men enter the scene from somewhere stage right. Who are they? Where did they come from? Has the family been awaiting the arrival of more dinner guests? Why do they wait so patiently and quietly? Is it an exaggerated sense of good table-manners, something peculiarly East Asian, perhaps?

With a sense of dramatic structure recalling the late Malik Bendjelloul’s masterpiece of narrative documentary, Searching for Sugarman, from 2012, the mystery is only gradually resolved. Meanwhile it engages our own detective efforts, as we try to make sense of what is happening. The men drift briefly into shot only to disappear off camera once more, but we sense their invisible presence in the room. The family start discussing the food before them, with some enthusiasm, and considerable attention to points of nutritional detail. A change of scene to the workplace follows and we start to see the parallels, we begin to decipher the codes.

Finally the penny drops. ‘Something’s wrong with this picture’ – profoundly wrong. Indeed, we will most likely never fathom the murkiest depths of the wrongness, but at least we are beginning to understand the meaning of the business-like, even imperious, manner of these men in the wings. What did we really expect? Certainly not an encounter with ‘Hell’s filmmakers!’ This might seem a strange epithet for the grey men who operate the day-to-day machinery of slavish conformism, but if Hell exists, I fully expect it to look like this: unremittingly dismal, consistently banal, and steeped in careless cruelty. It also makes perfect sense that the Devil would want to top it all by making an infernal movie out of our misery – a feel-good movie, naturally!

Yet the ministrations of these petty dignitaries are only part of a greater and more paradoxical whole. For there’s a paradox at the very heart of this film – and perhaps the country per se. The actions and agenda of the filmmaker-bureaucrats seem as drab as their sphere of operations seems startlingly beautiful: from the urban landscapes in their uneven grandeur, right down to the people themselves, and not excluding, it must be conceded, the ubiquitous and invariably colourful trappings of state propaganda. We may regard the latter as clumsy, even occasionally grotesque, but it might fair relatively favourably by aesthetic comparison with the commercial imagery and fanfare typical of the West.

«Under the Sun».
«Under the Sun».

What makes this film so effective is the way it has managed to capture the beauty of North Korea and juxtapose it with social relationships that provoke, at best, a much more ambivalent response. Like all great art, this is a work of light and shade. It provides no didactic account or judgement but something much more empirical and, above all, acutely observed. Thus preserved are the inherent tensions and, in this case, the overwhelming strangeness of the artist’s raw material.

In these terms, the cadence and rhythm of the film are perfect. This is no slick, Hollywood-style rollercoaster ride to some exotic Land of Oz, designed to provoke a rapid-reaction culture-shock, and equally rapid dismissal of all that is Other and therefore inferior. Under the Sun is testimony to what the deliberately expository style of filmmaking, more often seen at festivals, can achieve. This demands a little more patience of the viewer, but it is so worth the time and effort! For here is something that can take you to a level of understanding and, most of all, questioning, in a way that few Hollywood efforts can emulate.

The title is a misnomer. The Making of Under the Sun would be more accurate. Under the Sun was never completed. It was probably an ill-advised attempt to reach out to a few ‘enlightened’ outsiders and thereby strengthen the regime’s credibility in the eyes of Westerners. This has been a recurring ploy or leitmotif of North Korea’s untiring propaganda industry.

The cinematic experiment was, nevertheless, eventually (and quite sensibly) abandoned. Little did they know, it was already too late. The damage was done, and for that we can be eternally grateful. The film offers unparalleled insights into this strange little corner of Asia, this unrepentant throwback to the heyday of Communism with a capital ‘C.’ We cannot expect the insights to come in a straightforward manner, of course. This is not only true of a place like this one. The greatest truths are invariably those we will need to read between the lines. Nothing said directly is entirely to be trusted. In North Korea this goes without saying – as it were!


«Under the Sun»
«Under the Sun»

(The Making of) Under the Sun is a microcosm of society in action. We can observe the constitutive process through which a certain kind of order is built and maintained. Every step of the way, scene by painstaking scene – with an attention to detail worthy of any topflight movie-set – these filmmaker-bureaucrats are, in Noam Chomsky’s words, ‘manufacturing consent.’

The unimportance of facts to such an endeavour comes through clearly albeit incidentally, via the laborious mechanics of the cinematography itself. In one scene, workers share the good news that they have managed to increase their productivity. It’s one scene with several versions, all mercifully saved from the Communist cutting-room floor. The earliest attempts fail to achieve the requisite intensity of industrial bliss. ‘Smile harder!’ The quest for cinematographic perfection knows no bounds. Hence, in a later take, it is decided that the reported productivity-gain be increased a few percentage points, presumably to help the workers (or should we say actors?) with their motivation, and thus achieve appropriate levels of euphoria.

Mansky knew he would face some challenges. An array of bureaucratic obstacles was only to be expected. The total control authorities sought to exercise over the filmmaking process nevertheless came as a complete surprise. As he puts it himself, ‘Not even my research visit to North Korea, before we started shooting, could prepare me for just how strict the control over filmmaking would actually be.’

There was no prior agreement or warning. Only when filming was about to begin, did the authorities make their intentions clear: every day they would review all film-footage taken, and destroy whatever they deemed unacceptable. Mansky faced a difficult choice: continue as a kind of ‘puppet director’ with no real control over the film, or abandon the project entirely. But could there be another alternative? Authoritarian regimes actually provide us with plenty of alternatives – it’s just that some of them are extremely risky!

Every day the film-crew went to elaborate, nerve-shredding lengths to dupe the authorities. A complete copy of the day’s filming was hidden and another carefully edited and submitted for inspection. In this way a little leeway was opened up. They might have to work at the behest of their ‘executive filmmakers,’ but they could at least document that process: the working methods, the manipulation, the repeated takes in the cause of creating the perfect public image. This in itself is fascinating, to see the state machinery in action.

«Under the Sun»

«Under the Sun».

We see the grey men, the dutiful agents of normalisation, going about their work, applying the received, permissible image of reality to the relatively malleable raw material of all those ordinary North Koreans crossing their path – or viewfinder. What is even more fascinating is what the footage reveals of the objects of these efforts, the common people, as they chafe under the yoke of the ‘totalitarian machine,’ and endeavour to perform as the regime-as-filmmaker demands.

What is absolutely astonishing is the unwavering compliance, and herculean effort, on the part of all brought into the orbit of ‘Planet Film.’ They just keep trying to do whatever is demanded of them. One wonders where, if anywhere, they would draw the line! Above all, they keep smiling, with the grim determination of the most ambitious beauty contestant. They do not waver under the tedium of repeated takes, or balk at the absurdity of what they are being asked to do. It is almost as though their actions, rather than contributing to a sham reality, are actually creating the ideals and achievements. Perhaps they believe them to be real and believe that this is how reality is constituted.

Mansky himself went so far as to suggest (at a Q&A at KVIFF) that the North Koreans seem happy, as the script of the film – and their lives – dictates. When I spoke to him a little later, he qualified this stark statement in an interesting way: ‘I think that happiness is perhaps not the exact description of the state of their minds, but I think that that kind of a society for North Koreans is the only natural, possible and understandable society for them.’

Yet there are cracks in the edifice, not in the ubiquitous monuments to glorious leaders, or the conduct of the regime’s dutiful subjects. If the cracks are visible anywhere, it is, touchingly, painfully, in the faces of the children. In a snatched, unscripted shot en route to somewhere or other, we catch sight of the tell-tale signs of hunger and desperation in the interest some kid on the street is showing in the contents of a city rubbish-bin. It happens so fast – and it’s so out of place – it’s hard to believe what you know you just saw! We see another, much younger child, fighting with all her might to stay awake during yet another edifying lecture, only to nod off in spite of herself. Most affectingly of all, we see the daughter of the house, who has laboured patiently through so many scenes, so many performances, finally burst into tears of exhaustion and frustration.

The most distressing thing about this episode is the reaction of the adults. They provide the child with no sympathy or encouragement. The North Korean ‘filmmaker’ rather suggests ways to fix the problem, how to manipulate the subject and correct her behaviour. Completely unfazed, he sets about ending the inconvenient tears so they can get on with the work-at-hand.  He sets about getting her in line. Here we are really witnessing the regime in motion, as it reproduces itself, and moulds its future citizens according to received ideological ideals. It’s a dismal sight!

The director’s own observations are illuminating in this regard: ‘I believe that children are born free, and they lose their freedom during their lifetime. Actually, children were the only ones that would differ in their response to the situation. Teenagers are already fully made by the system. Originally, we wanted to focus the film on that age-category, but then when I realised that at 14 a person is already a product, I decided to drop the age-limit to eight.’

«Under the Sun».
«Under the Sun».

Ironically, the film’s most striking revelation is how little we really know about life inside the world’s strictest Communist regime. With every glimpse behind the old iron curtain, a new question is raised. To what extent is life in North Korea lived as kind of continual performance? You see the ready understanding of the demands of role-play on the part of everyone featured in Mansky’s film. Yet, ironically, they perform with great ineptitude. In one factory-scene take, a supervisor has the temerity to improvise a little, deviating from her minutely detailed script, an ill-judged attempt to impress with her own command of the ideological agenda. She compounds the error by looking expectantly for ‘the director’s’ approval even as the scene is still running.

The real measure of Mansky’s achievement lies in his revelation of the way all of us perform our lives – under the ever-present spotlight of social surveillance and potential censure. This is by no means a uniquely ‘Communist’ phenomenon. Watching North Koreans in action, we of course learn much about the extremity – and surprising clumsiness – of social conformism ‘under the Sun,’ but we may also be led to a deeper understanding of society per se – or at least to pose a few pertinent questions. How to live, how to be free?

The film raises an even deeper, philosophical, not to mention cinematographic, issue, about the nature and representation of reality. The presentation of the facts, whatever the expectations of traditional documentary craft, is never simple or straightforward. What determines what we count as real or authentic? What if everything is a performance – does that make human beings somehow innately unreal?

Humans, as social animals, are inclined to operate in roles of one form or another. When does the role render what they are doing less real, more phoney? We might think a role assigned by another, with scripted lines, obscures what is real – or at least more real, in the sense of being less complicated by the intervention of the world of thought and imagination. Yet, on reflection, there are similar issues afoot if the individual decides rather carefully, as she may, how she wishes to behave and be perceived, if, in other words, she fails to ‘act naturally.’ A work like Under the Sun uncovers in extreme form the dilemma at the heart of all documentation in film. What are our obligations to the facts? How are deeper psychological truths to be revealed if the ‘facts’ are actually concealing them?

There is a universal dimension to this work, which marks it out as a film of the highest quality. We nevertheless never lose sight of North Korea, in all its strangeness – whatever the broader lessons may be. Mansky confided that he had hoped the project would lend him fresh insights into his own history. He quickly realised that its applicability would be limited, even to the excesses of Stalinism. North Korea is unique. As he put it at Q&A, it is a regime entirely ‘without humanity.’ Having seen Hell’s filmmakers in action, I’m inclined to agree. At the same time, there is also a kind of contentment (at least superficially) in its interminable rituals and routines, which Mansky himself is the first to acknowledge.

Our instinct is to dismiss the ‘happiness’ of North Koreans, but watching this film, experiencing its melancholy beauty, we know there is something here we cannot fully understand, whose authenticity we cannot measure.

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