Saturday, July 2, 2016

Vitaly Mansky's UNDER THE SUN attempts -- with great beauty -- to reveal North Korea...

...but as usual with documentaries about this most foreign of foreign countries (I wonder if even North Koreans find it pretty strange: probably not, as they appear to have been brainwashed into a kind of near-lobotomization by now), we get pretty much the same old thing. Yes, once again (as in last year's Songs From the North), the state and its minions control everything the documentary filmmaker sees, hears and shoots (they even write the goddamned script!), so that everything the viewer sees and hears in, UNDER THE SUN, the latest attempt to show us North Korea, is... pretense. And pretense -- especially when it is handled as obviously as it is in this "kingdom" -- soon becomes downright boring.

How can it not? And how can a filmmaker begin to tell the truth when the powers-that-be are looking over his shoulder and telling him what to do, 24/7? Well, there is the editing process, once you've left the country. So documentarian Vitaly Mansky (shown at right, and clearly suffering from a North Korean-induced migraine) seems to have confined some of that "fake" script to voice-over and then let his visuals tell a bit different story from what those in power might want. Also, in his finished film, he explains via supertitles that introduce some of the scenes, how the state consistently changed reality into whatever scenario it would rather have us see and hear.

The result of all this is more beautiful visually than we've seen before. The colors are often eye-popping, particularly in scenes such as one in what looks like a soy milk factory, and later at some sort of a group sing-along in which the women are attired in simply gorgeous, colorful costumes. Visually, the movie is much more stunning than the obviously lower-budgeted Songs From the North (hell, it's even more so than that of the much higher-budgeted Hollywood narrative comedy The Interview).

And the scenes Mr. Mansky managed to capture (I am guessing surreptitiously) of everyday North Koreans show a populace in which anything approaching normal behavior has been commandeered by the state. No wonder the people seem to walk around like zombies. (There's a scene in which one after another twosome or threesome poses in front of bright red flowers and murals of the "great leaders" that is hugely sad, as are other scenes in which Mansky's camera captures subway and escalator riders.  These visuals take us so far before repetition and boredom set in.

How many times must be watch the Korean "director" coach his subjects to do and say the scripted stuff,  smile more, and act more joyful before we get the point? A little of this goes a long way, and Under the Sun lasts 105 minutes, during which we even have to sit through some "reshoots."

And while we do get so fun and sadness out of the leading threesome (shown at left) that is forced to portray the "typical" family in the documentary, with a little girl who is particularly sweet and charming, seeing her and her parents in all these faked situations -- at school, joining a political children's group, working in a garment factory, listening to an old military man drone on, watching a dance class, in hospital, and performing in the would-be spectacular finale number -- everything here combines to tell us what we already know. Or at least think we know. And nothing we see or hear here is likely to disabuse us of these notions. (Also, the thought does arise: What happened to this family after the film was released at film festivals around the world, much to the displeasure of the North Korean government?)

So Under the Sun joins the collection of movies, books, news reports, and all else about North Korea that we already have. If there is a way to show the real thing, nobody's found it yet. Instead we get the pretense (and sidelong glances that indicate something more). Over and over again. I'm not sure what is left for us to learn from all this.

The documentary -- released via Icarus Films, in Korean with English subtitles -- opens this Wednesday, July 6, in its U.S. theatrical premiere for a one-week engagement at Film Forum in New York City. Elsewhere? Yes, and you can see all nine, currently-scheduled cities and theaters in which the film will screen by clicking here.

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