She's only eight years old, but Zin-Mi knows a lot about her homeland. It is, she says, "the land of the rising sun" and "the most beautiful country." Of course, North Korea is the only place Zin-Mi has ever seen, and the only place she's ever likely to see.
Shot during two visits over a year, Under the Sun chronicles Zin-Mi's preparations to become a member of the Children's Union, a group in the tradition of the USSR's Young Pioneers. The uniformed tykes wear red scarves, and present red flowers to dignitaries weighed down by medals that cover their jackets. The kids also listen to endless lessons, presented by both young schoolteachers and elderly war veterans, about how the Kim dynasty defeated Japanese imperialists and American "cowards."
At first, Russian director Vitaly Mansky presents Zin-Mi and her equally earnest parents without comment. But then, during a family dinner, the filmmaker offers multiple takes of the scene. He shows the men who interrupt to coach the three players on their performances and tell them just what to say about the virtues of kimchi: It prevents cancer and enhances longevity, the handlers insist, and the girl and her parents dutifully repeat those claims.
Under the Sun is a documentary about the making of a "documentary" — a government-sanctioned propaganda film in which ordinary North Koreans play fictional roles. Mansky doesn't explain what he originally agreed to do or exactly how he wound up making something quite different. But he does include an occasional on-screen note about some of the North Korean subterfuge.
The parents, for example, are both shown to labor in exemplary factories where, in fact, they don't work. In reality, Dad is a "print journalist," which may mean his job is at the same propaganda agency that chaperoned the film.
Without explanation, North Korean authorities cancelled the project before shooting was complete. So Mansky felt free to use the existing footage for a film about the country's unbeautifulness. He divulges not only the backstage machinations, but also moments in which Zin-Mi — the exemplary Children's Union member — is confused, doubtful, or frustrated. Prompted by an off-screen overseer to look more cheerful by thinking of "something good," the girl falters. "I don't know what," she says. The simplest emotional cues are problematic when everything is scripted.
Under the Sun presents a society in which nothing is natural, and where depictions of Kim Jong-Un and his predecessors are as ubiquitous as images of Jesus in a medieval cathedral.
But the movie would have been more interesting if Mansky had included more of the back story. The filmmakers were required to submit their memory cards every day, and North Korean censors deleted any scene they didn't want used. What they didn't know was that the crew was backing up all the footage on a second set of cards so they could retain the moments the authorities thought were erased.
Also missing is the director's intriguing motivation. At a screening of the film at AFI Docs in Washington, Mansky said he initially thought the project would be "a time machine" to the Soviet Union's Stalinist era, and thus a means to better understand his country's history. But he came to believe that North Korea is "much more hard and cruel" than the USSR ever was.
Under the Sun doesn't document purges, prisons, and show trials. It displays only the wall that's been erected to block the view of any such brutalities. But that's enough.