The Russian director Vitaly Mansky spent almost a year in Pyongyang, North Korea, ostensibly collaborating with government authorities to shoot a documentary about an 8-year-old girl’s entry into that country’s Children’s Union, the political organization that all young people there are required to join.
The views of Pyongyang he came back with, featured in his film “Under the Sun,” are startling and chilling. Here is an Asian city that bears no traces of Western cultural or corporate influence. No Coca-Cola ads, no McDonald’s franchises. In public spaces where there would, in other countries, be movie posters on display, there are idealized images of the country’s former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Here, both religion and popular culture have been supplanted by a state-driven cult of personality.
These images also show the parts of national society that the North Koreans who contracted with Mr. Mansky wanted to be seen. His final film is something different from what they had in mind: It depicts government handlers more or less directing the action in supposedly intimate scenes of the girl, Zin-mi Lee, and her family. Subtitles say that the girl’s parents were given more suitably socialist jobs for the film. Barracks where workers — for all intents and purposes, slaves of the state — bed down between shifts are hidden from the filmmaker’s view.
The autocratic kitsch on display can be intimidating and hilarious at the same time, as when a Korean War veteran with almost 40 clunky medals on his jacket addresses a classroom.
The movie raises disquieting questions, including a few that Mr. Mansky might not have meant to. I wonder whether his hijacking of the project has had consequences for the hapless and sympathetic Zin-mi. The film also got me thinking about cultural relativism and the ultimate meaning of human freedom. It touches a nerve substantially deeper than the “I’m sure glad I don’t live there” one.
“Under the Sun” is not rated. It is in Korean, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.