As the saying goes, “too many cooks spoil the broth”. In the world of cinema, movie goers tend to hear horror stories about intrusive producers, stubborn filmmakers, and critical test audiences all trying to collaborate in order to make the perfection. In the case of Vitaly Mansky’s doc Under the Sun, the North Korean government are the ones overseeing the production, and it couldn’t have worked out any better.
Mansky set out to make a film about North Korea. He was given a “regular family” where both parents provide a satisfying income, while their young daughter Lee Zin-mi goes to school and takes part in an extracurricular dance program – hoping she will soon join the Children’s Union.
At first, Under the Sun was sounding like the type of static film that aggravates me. The filmmaker uses a cinéma vérité technique to capture daily routines, and the audience is supposed to extract meaning out of the images and intimate conversations. In good hands, this approach can be useful to allow a story to unfold for itself. Most of the time, it feels like a scapegoat for indifferent filmmakers.
With Under the Sun, Mansky has allowed his cameras to roll, but he’s captured more than any sceptic could believe. We see the film’s “ideal family” interact, but they’re often interrupted by people in the wings. In between repetitive takes, North Korean supervisors instruct the “family” on what should be said and how they should say it. Certain words are swapped out at the last minute, celebrations with applause are frequent, and the level of gratitude for “the Great Leader” is constantly acknowledged. The “hero” of the film is made out to be Lee Zin-mi and her “arc” is joining the Children’s Union. Mansky has also kept his cameras rolling on individuals in the background who are finding it exhausting to maintain interest.
Under the Sun is too long, but it’s very telling. It’s disturbing, bewildering, and sporadically funny. The audience feels as if they’ve stepped into an alternate dimension, which is incredibly jarring, but as soon as seams of this fraying façade are spotted, movie gors see Vitaly Mansky’s jaw-dropping thesis.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie