Bright Side

A Director Was Supposed to Shoot a Movie About a Happy Life in North Korea, but He Managed to Depict the Truth Instead

Vitaly Mansky is a famous Russian film and documentary maker who has been interested in the lives of people in North Korea for a long time now. He, like many other people, couldn’t understand how in the 21st century, there could be a country that looks like a scene out of George Orwell’s 1984.

Once, Manksy managed to meet the officials of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. They offered the director a chance to work on a movie. Of course, Vitaly agreed but not in order to fulfill the order but to understand how the most isolated country in the world really lives.

We at Bright Side were really interested in the story behind the making of this film and what the Under the Sun documentary ended up being.

The authorities of North Korea planned to make a movie that would show the world an image of a happy family and their good life. They prepared a script about an 8-year-old girl from Pyongyang who, on the Day of the Shining Star (the birth anniversary of Kim Jong-il), prepares to join the Korean Children’s Union. The officials gave this script to Vitaly Mansky and surrounded the director with supervisors who checked the filmed material every day. Young Zin-mi got the main role and she and her parents also received the script.

So, Manksy witnessed a carefully choreographed image of a happy life. The main characters were moved from a 1-room apartment near a railway station to a beautiful house in the capital downtown. However, the house was only a decoration — even the floors weren’t made properly there. The linoleum was on top of a concrete floor. The closets were empty, nobody used the bathroom, and the house in front of this one didn’t even have an entrance.

The head of the family was a journalist but they turned him into an engineer of a successful factory that produced soy milk. Even the family photos were shot with a fake background. But the show was much bigger than it seemed. “All the inhabitants of Pyongyang are just exhibits. For example, there are grass lawns everywhere and in the early morning or in the evening after work, people just sit there looking for some little pieces of trash”, Mansky remembers.

So, if the plan of the country’s authorities had worked, their documentary would have been perfect propaganda material. But the Russian director’s plan was very different.

The cameraman shot everything secretly aside from the scripted material. He captured how fake the world around everyone was by secretly shooting footage through windows (Mansky and the crew were prohibited to leave the room without their supervisors). Every day, the cameraman complained that he had stomach problems and he copied the secretly filmed material to a different memory card. The director and the crew were under constant pressure and they hid the non-official material and knew that if the material would be discovered, the consequences would be very dramatic. Just before they arrived, a young American was sentenced to 20 years in jail who tried to export a poster of the country’s leader out of the country. But Mansky was not suspected of anything like this, so 26 extra minutes with the director’s comments made the movie the opposite of what it was intended to be.

Mansky said that after the trip to North Korea, he has more questions about this country than he did before he visited it “Actually when I was preparing for the trip, I thought I had a clear understanding of this country and all I had to do was to put it on the screen. Having spent several months there, I can definitely say that now I don’t understand anything about the way they live there,” he explained.

The most surprising thing for the director was that people in North Korea don’t feel unhappy. They just don’t know that there is a different way of life. “I thought it was a system built on fear and suppression, but people realize what is going on. But after I’ve seen it, I know that people not only don’t realize it but they don’t even think about it...I once talked to a tiger coach and he explained to me that when a tiger is born (when training it for the circus), it doesn’t know it’s a tiger. So it grows up, it has claws, teeth, and it can jump, but it has no idea it’s a tiger.” This is an interesting comparison made by the author of Under the Sun.

Here are several more facts about North Korea that Mansky explained in many interviews:

  • Aside from the family that is shown in the movie, Mansky didn’t see any mothers or fathers walking with their children.
  • Some workers live right in the factories, and children sleep in schools.
  • Men in North Korea serve for 10 years in the military. And one of the few days when they can see their families is the Flower Show. Men can’t stay alone with their families but they can only see them in public during the show.
  • People bring artificial flowers to monuments. When there are too many flowers, special cars collect them and bring them back to the stores.
  • Foreigners are not allowed to use the North Korean subway. The director was allowed to use it only for 2 stations in order to shoot the necessary scene. This was not enough time, so Mansky was offered to take another train to take the same 2 stations in the opposite direction. After Mansky said that he could not continue shooting the scene with other passengers, the people were told to get into the necessary car. The passengers got up and went to the other train and took the same seats. It was shocking for the director and he still can’t believe it was true.
  • There are no commercials on local TV and radio. There are only 2 channels that only broadcast shows about the leader.
  • There are 2 newspapers. The first page always shows a big photo of the leader. The others show smaller leaders and the stories of their wins. At the end of the newspaper, there is information in a small font about events in other countries — plane crashes, strikes, and other problems.
  • Nobody has ever kissed in any North Korean film.

Mansky concludes, “The people there were born in this reality. Their ancestors lived in it and they have no information whatsoever that life can be different. They don’t travel anywhere and don’t have internet access. I don’t think they have fear. The terrible thing is, they are somewhere past being afraid.

It’s pretty hard to watch Under the Sun but it shows the real face of totalitarianism. Are you ready to take a look?