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Doc Corner: Two Films Highlight the Outrageous and the Tragic of North Korea

Films about North Korea have an unfair advantage. The country is one of such baffling oddness that films told about it are often either tragic or outrageous, two extremes that make for memorable viewing. On the other hand, the nature of North Korea’s political situation means few films are indeed made about it. Titles like Solrun Hoaas’ Pyongyang Diaries in which the Australian filmmaker ventured to a North Korean film festival and gave us a glimpse of what it means to be a traveller in this land of fake smiles and concrete, and the giddy delight of Anna Broinowski’s Aim High in Creation in which she travels to North Korea to learn how to make propaganda films from the makers themselves.

This year we can add two more entertaining docs. Both are full of surprises that beggar belief at seemingly every turn: The Lovers and the Despot and Under the Sun

The former from directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan is the most accessible of the pair; an espionage documentary about husband and wife filmmakers who were kidnapped by North Korea and forced to make movies for the country’s dictator leader before their brazen escape from the clutches of Kim Jong-il. Yeah, I know!

Truly, if this were a fiction film we would be balking at how ridiculous it is, but the story of Korean movie-star Choi Eun-hee and her directing husband Shin Sang-ok really does affirm the old cliché that truth is stranger than fiction.

The directors perhaps get too caught up in the eccentricities of the story they’re telling, failing to illuminate some parts that would have added valuable context to the story. Especially since some elements of the story remain vague and aloof, a symptom predominantly of Choi’s age and the fact that Shin has since died, which leaves some of the earlier passages less focused. Both did, however, publish books about their ordeal, and another non-fiction book by Paul Fischer titled A Kim Jong-il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker has recently been released that I am keen to read. One particularly fun directorial decision is the implementation of Shin’s movies into the film to act as a visual aid to Choi’s narration, and editor Jim Hession does a fine job of blending the mix of talking heads, news clips, recreations, film clips, and more into a compelling if one-note documentary.

Under the Sun from Russian director Vitaly Mansky is itself something compelling and new. An unauthorized authorized film about North Korea that highlights the country’s façade as one of performance, smoke and mirrors, and disgraceful manipulation. Supposedly set to direct a film about a year in the life of a Pyongyang family with an approved script, Mansky slyly observes the removal of the mask and shows the effort that goes into making the so called happiest and most beautiful nation on Earth.

One scene of a family eating dinner and talking about the healing properties of kimchi (but of course) is shown being filmed through several takes and script rehearsals, despite it meant to be spontaneous and real and a document of what a real North Korean family is like. Another shows two schoolgirls graciously welcoming each other to class, one removing the other’s jacket and draping it over her chair before cutting to shots of students huddled around a barely functioning radiator and wrapping themselves in scarves. Mansky continues to do this, observing the two faces of North Korea life and while it is too long – some scenes drag on just a bit too long once we have already gotten the idea – it’s also an endlessly fascinating look at modern life in Pyongyang like we never get to see in all of its strange glory while simultaneously showing us a genuine reality that succeeds in breaking down many of the preconceived notions of who these people are. That the director is Russian only emphasizes this; the parallels unmissable and the tragedy of life under dictatorship rule glaring.

Release: The Lovers and the Despot is currently on VOD, iTunes and Amazon Video as well as in limited theatrical release. Under the Sun has already received a theatrical release, but still has some dates playing around the country. It will hopefully be on home entertainment later in the year.

Oscar: Just a hunch that one of these may make the long-list. I would prefer Under the Sun, but Despot seems more likely since the slower, more detached pace of Sun would be less up the documentary branch’s alley.


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Reader Comments (7)

First Fences trailer is the Oscar Viola's judging from this footage.

September 27, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

Now Annette in 20th Century Women.

September 27, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

Can Denzel win a 3rd Oscar.

September 27, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

I really want to see both of these as North Korea is so fascinating; we know so little about it since it's so closed to most of the Western media and tourists. There's a documentary about North Korea by a Spanish filmmaker on Netflix, The Propaganda Game, that is okay - it asks as many questions as it answers - but it does feature some interesting footage of things like the Korea Demilitarized Zone and some of Kim Jong-il's film productions.

September 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

These sound "fun" though that also seems like a really weird word to describe a documentary about a country with a dictator.

September 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I saw both of these at AFI Docs a few months ago. The Lover and the Despot is interesting and funny in places, but you do get the sense that they leave out some crucial details.

Under the Sun is extremely slow, and more like a tableau piece. The scene of the North Koreans pushing the non-working buses is a memorable stark contrast in colors and tone to the previous dance/festival sequence. My issues with Under the Sun are that (1) it is quite long; they clearly took everything they had to make the film, but we didn't need every single take of every single scene to get the point, and (2) it is difficult to watch the little girl at the center of Under the Sun being pushed a little too hard.

September 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

A Kim Jong-Il Production is a great, witty read. Very disappointed with The Lovers and the Despot; I knew the story, my viewing partner did not, and she was left with some crucial questions that the film fails to answer. There's no real sense of time, no specificity, even the relationships between the three "protagonists" are vague. It's a better introduction to these events than it is a documentary of them.

Under the Sun sounds fascinating, though! Looking into that one!

September 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterWalter L. Hollmann

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