January 14, 2017

Under the Sun: Sticking to the Surface

Intended as a culturally-shaming documentary about a North Korean family whose daughter is joining a national children's union (in the arts, perhaps?), to me Under the Sun feels more like a behind-the-scenes DVD extra for a canceled informercial about Pyongyang — basically a long featurette that's been carelessly stripped of its directorial commentary. And so we're subjected to silently observed mass ceremonies of unknown meaning and various takes of rehearsed testimonials about increased productivity of milk-making, some technological improvements for garment workers, and the medicinal properties of kimchi, with the hopes that we'll string it all together ourselves. It all sounds canned (because it is canned) and it all reads flat (because director Vitaly Mansky wasn't allowed to delve). But can we really glean that much from the surface alone? And isn't there something akin to relief in seeing a people who aren't constantly smiling for the camera even when they're having their portrait taken? Mansky may intend to show "cruel" but what I saw sometimes was a respite from the fake happiness endemic here.

One aside: There's an extended moment at the midway point during which a highly decorated general, with so many medals he's practically wearing chain-mail, shares some war stories with a group of elementary school students. The camera lingers on this little girl who is clearly tired and you get the feeling the filmmaker is showing us how boring these speeches are, how life-sucking the ongoing indoctrination process is, but all I could think was, I hope that little girl and her family don't get into trouble because of this film. There's actually nothing significant to be learned by showing a sleepy-eyed youngster at any assembly. As such, this felt like irresponsibility on the documentarian's part as he was making a very dubious point. The closing scene of the young girl crying as she recites her country's version of the pledge of allegiance didn't feel as though it were damning her oppressors — who I know are real! — it felt like propagandists making a kid do something when she just wants to go to bed.

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