Vitaly Mansky’s Under the Sun often manages to transcend its attention-grabbing premise and achieve the sublime feat of speaking back to power in the language of film. While this singular documentary about North Korea and the people who create it is worth cherishing for its historical significance, it is worth far more for the humanity it finds in simulacrum.
It is worthwhile to note the unique conditions under which this film was made. Vitaly Mansky came to Pyongyang to make a documentary about the country and its people, only to find that the government had very particular intentions for his film. Limited access was granted to Mansky on the condition that everything he filmed be subject to censor approval, and that all other footage he shot be deleted. Thus, what was meant to be a documentary would be turned into a tightly scripted narrative propaganda film, which would use the story of a young girl and her family as a window into the DPKR communist “utopia”. Fortunately, Mansky kept and concealed a second memory card onto which he recorded the footage of the shooting as it was being coordinated by the censors. Under the Sun is therefore comprised of two movies running alongside each other, one a propaganda film and the other a making-of.
The tantalising promise of a look behind the curtain will be the biggest attraction for many, and the footage of the censors at work does not disappoint. If, as Genet said, fascism is theatre, then this film might be as close as we’ll see to a real-life This is Spinal Tap of totalitarianism. The demands placed on the performers by the censors are often laughably arbitrary, but adhere to an inscrutable internal logic. Watching a censor feverishly making minute corrections to the dialogue or having a chorus of little girls be told to start their performance again “with patriotism” makes The Interview’s broad satire seem positively ham-fisted.
While the premise justifies the existence of the film, there was a risk that Mansky might have satisfied himself by merely fulfilling it in a basic way. Watching the particulars of North Korean censorship is interesting but a film comprised only of this could devolve into a Vice-style safari if it weren’t tempered by greater concerns. The overly sarcastic tone of Mansky’s title cards and the sometimes overbearing score suggest that this could have been the fate of the movie he intended to create, making his lack of access something of a blessing in disguise.
The constraints of the film mean that Mansky must access his politics through artistry, and he proves more than capable of demonstrating it. The film is carefully assembled and beautifully shot, building an image of Pyongyang as a fog bound, silent and near-empty dystopia. The film’s grey palette and use of negative space portray the capital as a primitive computer simulation; the abandoned Sim City of a child building the largest monuments and ignoring everything else. It is a measured and specific portrayal of Pyongyang that skilfully conveys the failed promise of communist rule, without being afraid to find beauty in the desolation.
It is the way that Mansky shoots his human subjects that truly elevates this documentary above its conceit. Mansky was tasked with creating a piece of fascist propaganda but his genius is in recognising that the efficacy of this propaganda is as much about how it is shot as what is being shot. By exchanging extreme wide shots of crowds in regalia for extreme close ups of old men in gaudy costumes, Under the Sun exposes fascism by showing its awkward human antithesis.
When Mansky’s approach works, the film is by turns mordantly funny and deeply affecting. Under the Sun’s dominant note is bathos, playing the contrast between the DPRK’s absurd theatrics and the banal humanity of its citizens: children fall asleep during long-winded speeches; geriatric generals in gaudy regalia are carelessly herded into position; a scene set in a mirrored dance studio ingeniously embodies the film’s mise en abyme by pulling focus from the bored face of an unwitting drummer to that of a dancer contorted into a maniacal rictus.
Mansky’s restrained approach also finds genuine pathos in his subjects. Within the narrow emotional band in which the film is forced to operate, images of children huddled around a radiator or the hint of a tear in a little girl’s eye become charged with significance. In fact, the final moments of the film are so moving as to make you wonder if Mansky himself had a hand in staging his documentary.
At its best, the film gives use an authentic sense of the people behind the artifice, reflecting a faith in the power of the human spirit to defy its circumstances. Like everything else in the film, the title conveys a double meaning to those with eyes to see it, understandable as a reference to Kim-Il Sung’s association with the Sun and the invariance of human nature. To Mansky, a child of the USSR, there truly is nothing new under this sun.
This is not the most nuanced or original take on life under totalitarianism but the film is made remarkable by how powerfully it conveys it. By focussing on the subjects of fascism rather than its creators, Under the Sun manages to say a great deal more about both.