Under the Sun pulls a fast one on North Korea

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      A documentary by Vitaliy Manskiy. In Korean, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable

      The reason that no outsiders shoot movies in North Korea is that you can’t sneeze there without government permission.

      Ukraine-based Vitaliy Manskiy, who specializes in making tough-minded docs under onerous conditions, went against that grain by going with it. He agreed to every condition demanded by North Korean officials, including sticking to the “script” they provided and submitting at least some of the footage for review afterward—to correct “mistakes”. And he still came up with a heartbreaking record of lives relentlessly stifled from birth.

      Certainly, the film—one of two docs about North Korea playing this week—is loaded with sympathy for the inhabitants, starting with lovable Lee Zin-mi, a big-eyed eight-year-old proud to join the Children’s Union (yikes). She’s seen reciting an Orwellian history lesson in class (Japanese aggressors, American cowards, and Korean landowners are all pretty much the same, you see) and taking dance classes for an upcoming group performance. She clearly hates every part of it, as underscored by Manskiy’s use of sombre classical music.

      Zin-mi is slightly more at ease with her parents, although given the humourless interference from (sometimes on-screen) handlers, we can’t be sure that they are her parents. Indeed, these two are even assigned different jobs for the movie, and their interactions with “coworkers” are almost hilariously stilted. Their apartment is fake, and they don’t even get to eat the absurdly bounteous dinner, since the untouched food is taken away after every take.

      It’s clear, however, that North Koreans have become excellent performers, whether feigning enthusiasm for a phony work celebration, moving in geometric formations, or crying on command for the anniversary of the founding Great Leader’s death. “Every spring,” one of Zin-mi’s classmates proclaims at one mass event, “our little flower-bud hearts are filled with grief for our beloved generalissimo Kim Il-sung.”

      Sadly, their little flower-bud hearts are spoken for the moment they are born.