This epically eerie look inside the closed world of North Korea could easily be retitled Don’t Forget to Smile!
That order is barked at countless people corralled for this staged documentary. Russian director Vitaly Mansky has gained access to the country only by agreeing to follow a script approved by North Korean rulers—one about an ideal family taking the roles of the ideal working class, its adorable eight-year-old daughter entering the ranks of the Children’s Union.
We also learn from his sparse intertitles that he has had to accept the “help” of escorts who tell him what to shoot, and order their subjects around. But don’t expect a straight-up piece of dogma here: Mansky’s brilliance is in letting his camera linger before and after each scene, so that we can see the intense stage-managing that goes into running a totalitarian state.
At one point, his escort manhandles a group of female factory workers into a tidy row; at another, he cajoles a bunch of seamstresses into being more enthusiastic in their patriotic cheers. Other secret shots range from the affecting to the comedic: a schoolgirl nods off while a military speaker regales her class with a longwinded tale about beating American “cowards” in the war; and young Zin-Mi can’t hold back tears when she talks about how joining the Children’s Union ironically means taking on adult responsibilities.
Mansky sets these moments against majestically shot imagery of the hidden state, with its tiny subjects dwarfed by gaping squares and monuments to Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung. In its subversive, sly way, this film is far more damning than anything served up in The Interview.
Most terrifying? The subjects, forever dressed in matching aprons, rubber boots, school uniforms, or hanboks, do manage to smile on command—but their eyes betray a mix of fear, melancholy, and fatigue that will chill you to your core.