From the Library, Under the Sun

From the Library, Under the Sun February 14, 2017

Pyongyang;'s_Party_01.jpg; By Joseph Ferris III (Flickr: Pyongyang, North Korea) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

This is a movie, not a book.  Here’s the premise:  a Russian filmmaker, Vitaly Mansky, gets permission from/invited by the North Koreans to film a movie there, a “day in the life” that purports to be the experiences of a typical family as the 8 year old girl joins the Children’s Union (Young Pioneers-equivalent).  The Norks dictate the script and checked the footage to ensure that only the acceptable bits were retained, but they filmed before and after the “official” scenes, and, taking advantage of the Norks unfamiliarity with the technology, they secretly copied over this footage and produced an eye-opening film.

The film does not show the material deprivation of the North Koreans, at least not to a great degree; of course he was constantly supervised by his minders, and even if the filmmaker had more discretion, only the privileged live in Pyongyang in the first place.  But it does show their spiritual deprivation, through countless details, big and small.

Here’s a scene:

Zin-mi comes into the classroom, says to her friend, “you were the first one, again!” and then they happily start washing desks and singing a song of praise to Glorious Leader.

The next scene, in the classroom:  the teacher instructs the children in the love that Glorious Leader had for his people, by fighting the Japanese even as a child.  The children repeat the lesson, over and over again, beaming with pride.

The scene beforehand:  those same children, all hunched over the radiator before class starts, warming themselves.

The girls all have identical braids, and the classroom is all girls.  Is this truly how North Korean schools are set-up?  Or did the filming supervisors think that a classroom of all-girls would be cuter?  In other scenes, children march around the (grey, concrete) schoolyard.  A caption says that they never actually saw children leave the grounds, and they believed that the children lived there, and their parents lived at their workplaces.

Another scene:

a family meal.  The table is impossibly full with food, and mother, father, and daughter sit down to eat.  Father says, “Zin-mi, eat some kimchi.”  Daughter says, “oh, yes.  Kimchi is very healthy for you.  It prevents aging, and cancer.”  They repeat the scene multiple times.  One wonders whether they ever got to eat the food on the table.

Another scene:  the garment factory where the father supposedly works.  His actual job was a “print journalist” but they decided to make him an engineer.  They show a meeting with several of the workers in which he pretends to advise them on a quality-control problem, and the workers nod their heads in unison and then announce their gratitude at his solution (a few garbled nonsense words, something along the lines of “we will add 6, 8 and 20 mm widgets to solve the problem”).  Later on the factory floor, the supervisor announces her joy at the fact that they reached 150% of the day’s production quota, then gives a bouquet to their oldest and longest-serving employee, who in turn announces that they could not have done it without the wisdom of their engineer.  This scene is repeated multiple times, with the North Korean crew exhorting the women to smile and be enthusiastic, and with the script changing from 150% to 200%.  In the meantime, the camera wanders and we see the real production board with markers at 30 – 40%.

The mother, too, is pulled away from her real job as a cafeteria worker to a staged job in a soy milk factory, where she and the other workers are told by their supervisor how inspiring it is to produce many different kinds of soy milk for all of the people of North Korea — a scene, again, repeated multiple times, with exhortions for the workers to be more cheerful.

Later, Zin-mi gets a dance lesson, with the instructor having her repeat the steps over and over again until she looks visibly exhausted.

Another scene at the school:  the children sit in a small auditorium, listening to a veteran telling tales of his military service against the cowardly Americans.  Zin-mi struggles to stay awake.

There is one of those mass-performance dances in a public square, that we see Zin-mi watching from her apartment.  After the dance is over, the dancers are dismissed and leave for home.

We see people riding the bus, the subway, walking to their jobs, bowing as they pass the mural of the Kims — all of which happens in silence.  Do the people always stay silent when in public, or were they instructed to do so by the filmmaker’s North Korean supervisors?

Praises of Dear Leader, and Great Leader, and whatever other titles, are everywhere, as are songs in their honor — and everyone, man, woman, and child, wears a Kim pin.  We catch bits of TV in the background, and it’s always war movies.

Is the film a shining example of filmmaking?  It’s rather slow in parts, and shows a bit too much of some tedious scenes, such as the filmmaker walking up flights of stairs (was this supposed to be symbolic of something?), or one scene after the next of pedestrians silently walking in the grey city.

But what got me is this:  for the North Korean scriptwriters to have plotted out these scenes for a Western audience suggests that they truly thought they would be believable to the audience — that children would spontaneously sing songs of praise for the Kims, or that factory supervisor would speak in patriotic terms of their joy at serving the people.  It’s such a thorough indoctrination that George Orwell could have been describing the country.  And I’ve read elsewhere that when North Koreans end up in the South — that is, via the Underground Railroad through China — even though they can intellectually grasp that they’ve been lied to the whole life, they still can’t shake that emotional reaction that, surely, the Kims themselves are not at fault.


Image:  Pyongyang;’s_Party_01.jpg; By Joseph Ferris III (Flickr: Pyongyang, North Korea) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment