Film Review: Under the Sun
Spoiler alert: The North Korean government suffers from a severe transparency deficit.
How do you reveal the reality of a society where government representatives script each scene you're allowed to shoot?
Simple: leave cameras rolling at all times, and show your audience the scripting and retakes of "real life" in all their glory.
You end up not with a documentary about a family going about their lives, but a behind-the-scenes reveal of a family whose dinner-table conversations, workplace interactions, and even expressed emotions are curated by government propagandists for external consumption.
No North Koreans question this process out loud--except to check their lines.In this system everyone knows the role expected of them, especially with government officials overseeing everything. So before our very eyes, we observe the theatrical production of an ideal 'Kimilsungist socialist society', played out by real citizen-actors. And when citizens know the risks of not playing the part they’re asked to play, they become good actors.
This is of course a very real aspect of life in North Korea, even when no cameras are rolling. The everyday ritualised theatrical production of 'obedient citizens willingly striving as one for the socialist cause' is one of the key means by which the state perpetuates itself. Everyone knows what to say, how to say it, and that you have to say it. Whatever your innermost thoughts may be, it's hard to break role publicly when everyone else is sticking so closely to a ‘script’.
Revealing the nature of this production, warts-and-all, is one of the key contributions of Under the Sun.But as with any behind-the-scenes look, cracks in the facade, tired actors and cock-ups are apparent.'Off stage', strategically placed cameras record poor Pyongyang kids scavenging from a trash can. We see commuters disembarking to push a tram. A government 'set manager' shoos away two women approaching the back door of a milk processing plant with a big jug; we can only guess they were looking for an off-the-books top up, unaware there were foreign filmmakers present that day.
We see a forgetful factory worker reporting they have exceeded production targets by 150%, and in the next take 200%. It doesn't matter to any of her coworkers which fiction is used, and no one bats an eyelid.
And of course, children being less practiced in their roles within the system than adults, the best scenes feature North Korean kids. A small girl struggles to keep her eyes open while an aging war veteran wearing far too many medals bumbles through an anti-American propaganda lecture, punctuating tales of shooting down planes with praise for Kim Il-sung.
Jinmi, the star of the film, breaks down in tears when the pressure of performance becomes too much. Elsewhere, on-screen text tells us that she unwittingly revealed her parents' true occupations of journalist and restaurant worker before the government co-producers scripted them as the more socialist-appropriate textile factory technician and soy milk plant worker.
It's hard to not recall The Truman Show, and it boggles the mind to think there are 25 million people living out their lives in this theater state.
But unlike a Hollywood Movie, the enemy here is not represented by a snarling on-screen character. The propagandists are unnamed and we rarely even see their faces properly. The enemy is in fact the system itself, whose quiet tyranny forces every citizen - including the propagandists - to become complicit in its perpetuation by allowing the expression of only a singular narrative of what it is to be a North Korean.
The Red Box: Misunderstandings and Stereotypes about North Koreans
For North Korean refugees, resettling in a new society comes with many challenges. One of these challenges is overcoming the stereotypes about North Korea and the North Korean people.
In the latest episode of The Red Box, our North Korean friends and 2019 LiNK Advocacy Fellows talk about the struggle of of facing stereotypes after resettling in South Korea.
Watch as Jeongyol, Joy, Dasom, and Ilhyeok answer your questions in The Red Box Series!
Read the transcript of this episode below!
All: Welcome to the Red Box!
Are there any misunderstandings about the North Korean people that make you feel uncomfortable?
Joy: When I first came to South Korea, was working part-time at a convenience store. I was still very young and had a very heavy North Korean accent.
In South Korea, when a customer enters the part-time employees don't really greet them. But I used to greet the customers standing and say "Welcome!" so people would ask me where I'm from.
I'd tell them that I'm from North Korea. They'd say "oh really?" After they get their stuff and put them on the counter, they'd asked me if I ever had jjajangmyun or pork in North Korea? They'd ask me these types of questions. Some people ask because they don't know but sometimes they ask questions that insinuate that we were all so poor in North Korea. Not everyone in North Korea is like that. There's people who live well too
Jeongyol: If someone asked me that, I’d tell them I might've lived a wealthier life there [in North Korea].
Joy: So those types of questions made me feel a little uncomfortable.
Jeongyol: A lot of people think like that.
Dasom: People think that all North Koreans are poor, ignorant, and uneducated. People have told me that even though I must have starved and lived poorly in North Korea, I don't look the part.
Maybe some people did or didn't have enough food to eat. There are poor people and there are rich people too. Every country is the same — it’s the same in South Korea too. There are rich, poor, and homeless people in South Korea too. I don't think it's right to judge someone like that. It made me feel very uncomfortable
Jeongyol: When I was in high school, there was a soccer match between North Korea and South Korea. But all of a sudden they asked me which team I'm cheering for. So I was startled by the question.
Should I say I'm cheering for North Korea or South Korea? What's my identity?
Even though I'm living in South Korea as a South Korean citizen, they didn't recognize the fact that I'm also South Korean. That we were the same people.
So at the time I answered, "I'm not cheering for either team. I don't care who wins. I’m just watching the game for fun.” It went over smoothly but afterward I kept thinking about it. But now that I think about it…It wasn't my choice to be born in North Korea.
Jeongyol: I could've been born in the U.S. but somehow I was born in North Korea.
Anyone could've been born in North Korea.
It's not anyone's fault. So from that moment on, I became confident. I am just who I am.
Ilhyeok: I have this older friend from China. During holidays like in January, he'd always ask me if I am visiting my hometown. Whenever he asks me that question, I want to be able to tell him that I'm am going [home] but I can't because I can't go back so I just don’t answer him. When he asked me if I'm going home, I just wished that I could return home one day.
It's heartbreaking not being able to go home.
During Chuseok and New Year's Day, those two holidays are when I miss home the most.
Joy: One uncomfortable question for me was when I was in school or met people was when they asked me why there's no riot or uprising in North Korea. Sometimes people ask because they really don't know but sometimes they insinuate that we're cowards.
And with that viewpoint, they ask why we won't revolt against the government. I try to explain but they still insist and say, ”But you guys still should have done something.” That makes me a little sad.
In North Korea, there's a system of monitoring each other. So if one person says something bad, they'd get reported right away and taken.
Jeongyol: In South Korea there were a lot of civil riots so they ask why we didn't do anything in North Korea.
Joy: But it's a very different situation.
Jeongyol: The system doesn't allow it.
What also made me uncomfortable was if I did something wrong, people would blame it because I'm North Korean.
They say things like, “It's because she's North Korean.” That made me upset. Other people say bad things and make mistakes too. But because of one mistake they say all North Koreans are like that and that I wouldn't know things or be able to do things because I'm from North Korea.
I hated hearing that so I wouldn't tell anyone that I was from North Korea.