Tag Archives: North Korea

re “Under the Sun” (a film about North Korea)


Three years ago (it seems like yesterday), I saw a film at the Film Forum in Manhattan: Under the Sun, a documentary film about North Korea. Such a film would be pretty much unavailable in movie theaters outside of New York. I saw it five times within a period of a few days. Each time I went back I saw something I had missed.

The film, in Korean, was directed by the Russian documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky.

The central person in the film, who is unforgettable, is an adorable eight-year-old North Korean girl named Zin-mi. Zin-mi lives with her parents – except we don’t know if they really are her parents; they may be actors playing her parents — in an apartment that may have been a “stage prop” in Pyongyang.

The director, Vitaly Mansky, spent almost a year in Pyongyang, ostensibly collaborating with government authorities to shoot a documentary about an eight-year-old girl’s (Zin-mi’s) entry into that country’s Children’s Union, the political organization that all young people there are required to join.

New York Times critic, Glenn Kenny, made the following very perceptive, right on the money comment about the film: “It touches a nerve substantially deeper than the ‘I’m sure glad I don’t live there’ one.”

The North Korean government went to great lengths to try to prevent the film from being released.



The film is a “quasi documentary.” The compelling thing about it is that you come away caring about the people and touched by the film’s PATHOS — despite the fact that one is aware that the people live regimented lives in a totalitarian state where they have been effectively brainwashed and reduced almost to automatons (or so it often seems).

The film is beautifully done and tugs and pulls at the viewer emotionally on many levels. It features beautiful, elegiac music — used sparingly with great effect — composed by a Latvian composer, Karlis Auzans.

The plot is ostensibly about Zin-mi going through steps, including school, as she prepares to join the Korean Children’s Union. At the film’s conclusion, she breaks down and cries upon being admitted to the Children’s Union. She is perhaps crying from relief that the stress of achieving the goal is over and, it seems, from what one would call joy mixed with sadness.

The scene of Zin-mi crying in the film is on YouTube at

The film captures the pathos — musically and otherwise — in a scene where you see North Koreans having family photos taken in a sort of assembly line fashion. A couple stands proudly in front of an automatic camera with their children. The photo is taken and another couple poses. And so on. As they stare into the camera, one sees expressions of pride but also feels a great sadness. The music rises to an emotional pitch and captures this. One feels empathy with the people posing, with the North Koreans. One feels that they are people, just like us.

That, despite very hard lives, they experience feelings like ours. One feels like crying oneself, but one, at the same time, experiences a kind of joy in contemplating the miracle of human existence, and how this elemental reality links us all, regardless of circumstances.

You can hear the elegiac, profoundly moving music composed by Mr. Auzans for this scene at


Can you stay dry eyed upon hearing it? I can’t.


Roger W. Smith

    June 2018




The film is available on YouTube for a fee.

The trailer is at



Some articles about Under the Sun:


“Under the Sun,” Two Views of North Korea (film review)

The New York Times

July 5, 2016


“Under the Sun,” a Documentary Masked and Unmasked

The New York Times

July 1, 2016


MoMA Apologizes for Dropping a Film Critical of North Korea

The New York Times

June 10, 2016

“Under the Sun” documentary catches North Korea with its guard down

Los Angeles Times

July 6, 2016



“Under the Sun” Review: A Terrifying Glimpse Inside North Korea’s Dictatorship


July 6, 2016

‘Under the Sun’ Review: A Terrifying Glimpse Inside North Korea’s Dictatorship


Film Review: “Under the Sun”


June 19, 2016

Film Review: ‘Under the Sun’

Film Review: ‘Under the Sun’


Russian film exposes the workings of North Korea’s propaganda machine

The Guardian

December 2, 2015