The documentary, ‘Under the Sun,’ gives Western audiences an unprecedented glimpse of North Korea

The documentary, ‘Under the Sun,’ gives Western audiences an unprecedented glimpse of North Korea

The people behind this groundbreaking documentary hopes the Academy will put it on the Oscar short list.

North Korean authorities sanctioned the filming of Russian director Vitaly Mansky’s documentary, Under the Sun, about the daily life of an average family in Pyongyang. They provided government minders, a state-approved script, and the film’s heroine, adorable 8-year-old schoolgirl Zin-mi. They picked a perfect apartment for her to “live” in, and altered her parents’ jobs to better fit their ideal patriotic myth. “My father says that Korea is the most beautiful country…” says eight-year-old Zin-mi. And so it might seem as Mansky films her in joyous, patriotic school pageants and in dance class, or with her parents, eating delicious food in their picturesque apartment.

There’s just one problem: The action is fake. The North Korean government cast the film, wrote the script and provided guides to feed the actors their lines while managing every detail of the project. In reality, Zin-mi’s father is a journalist, and her mother a cafeteria worker. “Don’t act like you’re acting in a movie,” a guide scolds the girl at one point. “Act naturally, like you do at home.”

But they couldn’t control the filmmaker and his crew, who risked their lives to smuggle out of the country secretly-shot footage of the stagecraft behind this stunningly detailed illusion of perfection. The government handlers supervising the production did not realize that Mansky kept filming even after they had shouted “cut.”

As the family is instructed on how to be the ideal patriots, and Zin-mi prepares to join the state-run youth brigade in time for Kim Jong-Il’s birthday, “The Day Of The Shining Star,” Mansky’s watchful camera captures details. From comrades struggling to stay awake during an official event to Zin-mi’s tears at a particularly grueling dance lesson, Under the Sun offers viewers an unprecedented peek at real life in the world’s most notorious regime.

Screen Daily printed this excerpt: “The script of this extraordinary and revealing film, about an ordinary family in Pyongyang, was assigned to the filmmakers by the North Korean authorities. The crew was accompanied at all times by minders ‘to prevent us from getting lost’; the locations were pre-selected; the performances orchestrated to depict suitably fervent levels of patriotism. All the footage was scrutinized by DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) officials to check for mistakes in showing a typical family in “the best country in the world.” It’s no wonder that the smiles start look a little forced. What’s more unexpected is just how much Russian documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky is able to reveal despite, and often because of, the stringent restrictions imposed upon him.”

What the critics are saying:

It’s a movie self-consciously framed around its own making: specifically the creation of a Korean propaganda spectacle. Mansky uses the limitations imposed on him by the government to create a kind of commentary on the genre.” – John Hartl, Seattle Times

Under The Sun also reminds us that, their dissimilar society notwithstanding, the North Koreans are not some alien race but people like us, trying to get by the best they can.” – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

There’s journalistic filmmaking, and then there’s what Vitaly Mansky does in Under The Sun: a feat of truth-telling so daring that watching it makes you feel like a co-conspirator.” – Norman Wilner, Toronto Sun

Though there’s something inherently satisfying about seeing propaganda de-pantsed, Mansky has something greater to offer than easy irony.” – Eric Hynes, Village Voice

I think the lessons of Under the Sun go far beyond the tragic and idiotic delusions of North Korea’s nightmare state, and that those lessons have direct application in Mansky’s country, and in ours.” – Andrew O’Hehir, salon.com

Daring and thought-provoking, director Vitaly Mansky’s film uses one North Korean family to examine how everyone — moviemakers, governments, even individuals — contorts reality to fit specific purposes.” – Tim Grierson, Paste Magazine

Under The Sun is really two films, threaded together: one a carefully crafted lie, and the other something closer to the truth.” – Noel Murphy, AV Club

Although unintentionally funny throughout, its evocation of life in a totalitarian society is ultimately chilling.” – RogerEbert.com

The movie raises disquieting questions, including a few that Mr. Mansky might not have meant to.” – Glenn Kenny,  New York Times

The vision of such severe regimentation is shocking; Zin-mi’s tears of shame and her sharply limited range of knowledge and inhibited behavior embody an outrage.” – Richard Brody, New Yorker

An awkwardly revealing act of subversion that is arresting however you take it: as propaganda deconstructed, failed or turned into a tragicomedy whose most stinging indictments lie mostly in what remains unseen.” – Dennis Harvey, Variety

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