Don’t Forget to Smile!

Notes on reviews of Vitaly Mansky’s Under the Sun

Under the Sun

In mid-May, the Czech-German-Russian co-production documentary entitled Under the Sun won the Golden Kingfisher Award for the best documentary film at the Finále Plzeň film festival. This is not the first (most probably also not the last) award the film has garnered. Vitaly Mansky’s documentary work depicting the life of a seemingly ordinary North Korean family is also the winner of the award at the 19th Jihlava IDFF’s Between the Seas section, the Best Director award at Tallinn’s Black Nights festival, the Best Documentary Award at Trieste festival – and its winning streak is far from over.

Mansky and his director of photography defied Korean propaganda by secretly preserving all of the captured video recordings. Every day, they were asked to hand in the recordings for approval to Korean officials, who immediately deleted unacceptable footage and returned the card containing only approved images. However, none of them realised that modern technologies are able to save the recorded footage on two memory cards simultaneously. Mansky thus managed to show a look behind the scenes of the making of his documentary in Communist North Korea following a script, praised even by the venerated leader Kim Jong Il.

International reviewers have suggested that the film could be easily renamed to “Don’t Forget to Smile!“ ( Mansky leaves the camera running to capture Korean “filmmakers” preparing a perfect film set – instructing children to smile more, ordering dairy workers to clap hands to celebrate their success and tell little Zin-Mi, the main protagonist, not to be afraid and act naturally as if she were at home. The central topic of the majority of both Czech and foreign reviews is the clash of the artificial “happy” and colourful reality and that as could be expected in the streets of North Korea – empty streets, sunless sky, greyness and silence.

A review published in September 2015 in Screen notes that: “This film is a high-quality package about a newsworthy but little-seen subject: a life beyond the festival circuit seems certain.” It praises Mansky for his ability to – in spite of the strict control (and perhaps thanks to its rigidity) – to show the everyday and ordinary aspects of the life “in the best country in the world”. Mansky himself stated he had been disappointed to have failed to find ordinary people living ordinary lives in Korea and so he decided to make a film about fake Korean reality. This false reality can be best represented by the final scene showing an eight-year-old girl forced to tears by the omnipresent drill, cameras, her parents and other governmental officials; when she is asked to recall some funny or nice moments, she starts reciting a poem in praise of the Supreme leader.

However, many reviewers have been misled into putting Mansky’s work on an uncritical pedestal, without giving it a more thorough thought. Indeed, the director spent a year in North Korea risking his life thus undoubtedly manifesting great courage and investing a remarkable amount of energy in the film’s production. Nevertheless, this fact overshadows Mansky’s brilliant ability to intensify the film’s atmosphere through long takes that allow the viewer to get more absorbed in the images making the presented topic more tangible and immediate.

Some critics have even made a daring claim that they can see the numerous festival awards transforming into a great international distribution and broadcasting (TV) success (The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Cineuropa). Once these predictions are fulfilled, some Korean governmental officials will certainly be summoned to give a detailed explanation to their Supreme leader.

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