NZ International Film Festival review: Under the Sun

Two of the protagonists in Under the Sun
Two of the protagonists in Under the Sun

Is a documentary vetted by North Korea still a documentary?

When it's Under the Sun, it is. A mind-bending account of life in the world's most secretive country, it was filmed over the course of a year by Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky, who was only allowed in with a pre-approved script, and on the proviso that officials have censorship rights over what was filmed.

Despite that, it sparked a diplomatic row when it was first released - and it's not hard to see why.

Under the Sun nominally tells the story of young Zin-mi as she gets initiated into the Children's Union and generally goes about her daily life.

Or should that be "daily life".

The bulk of the film is comprised of the approved set pieces: the rote learning of mindless propaganda at school, mass dancing and parading, leader worshipping. None of this is really surprising at all, but on the big screen it's more confronting, disquieting, surreal.

It's when the camera continues rolling in between takes that the documentary truly begins.

We become privy to the fussing, re-shooting, and specific direction given by the North Korean officials, making it clear that at best this is a highly massaged and scripted version of reality.

The audience's belief in what is real is challenged every step of the way; it's impossible to know what to believe.

It did surprise me that a few specific things were let in: Zin-mi's tears of frustration at being made to repeat new dance steps over and over; a girl falling asleep during a propaganda speech. One can only assume the authorities thought those shots communicated a different message.

It should be noted that Under the Sun is an excruciatingly slow watch - but purposefully so. The long shots and extended scenes give a sense of what the monotony of life must be like for the people of North Korea. This is complemented by the exacting camerawork, which captures the physical sparseness and robotic uniformity of Pyongyang.

But the pièce de résistance is the score. It's used sparsely but with devastating effect, the mournful strings heightening the intensity of this farce of the most tragic proportions.

Three-and-a-half stars.

This film is playing as part of the 2016 New Zealand International Film Festival.

     Under the Sun:: Director: Vitaly Mansky:: Rating: Exempt:: Running Time: 106 minutes

Reviewed by Kim Choe/Newshub.

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