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PS Picks: Documenting the Artifice of North Korea in 'Under the Sun'

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Under the Sun.

Under the Sun.

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Documenting the Artifice of North Korea: When Russian director Vitaly Mansky set out to make a documentary about life in North Korea, he was—after two years of negotiation—allowed to do so under certain conditions: The North Korean Ministry of Culture would script the film and choose who would appear in it. And, while shooting, Mansky had to hand over all footage to the North Korean authorities.

Released in 2016, Under the Sun centers on the family of eight-year-old Zin-Mi, who is joining the Korean Children's Union—a political organization under the umbrella of the Workers' Party of Korea. In a surreal dinner scene, the North Korean handlers (whom the government provided to shadow the production) coach the family on how they should talk about kimchi. We see several takes in which Zin-Mi describes how kimchi "prevents cancer and aging," eliciting the same hearty laugh from her parents each time.

After that, the film's artifice shows more and more: We find out, for example, that North Korean authorities changed Zin-Mi's parents' professions ("According to Zin-Mi, her mother works at a cafeteria, but during the shoot she'll be working at an Exemplary Soy Milk factory"). How is all this possible under the government's meticulous guidelines? Mansky and his small crew did something risky: They kept copies of all the footage—and the cameras kept rolling between takes.

What's most fascinating about watching this documentary-turned-exposé is not the puppetry orchestrated by the North Korean government or the beautiful shots of a place you'll likely never visit. It's seeing all that refracted through the eyes of a child who is being groomed to be a model North Korean citizen. In one memorable sequence, Zin-Mi tries to learn a traditional dance, but even the basic steps elude her. Her strain and her tears could be those of any frustrated child, but in the context of the broader lines of discipline that circumscribe her life, they seem to hold much more.