Greetings again from the darkness. There is an old episode of “The Twilight Zone” that has always stuck with me. It starred Bill Mumy (who later became well known as Will Robinson in “Lost in Space”) as a young boy with God-like mental and telekinetic powers. The entire town was afraid of him, so they constantly acted in ways to make him believe they were happy and appreciated him. Memories of that show came rushing back as I watched this documentary from Russian director Vitaly Manskiy. We outsiders know little about life in North Korea (it’s known as ‘the Hermit Kingdom’), though the film seems to confirm what we’ve been led to believe: it’s a country filled with citizens either living in fear or living with acceptance of their plight (or both).
Director Manskiy was contracted to make a movie about daily life of an ordinary family in Pyongyang. Two “escorts” were assigned to him, a state-sponsored script was provided, and his footage was reviewed daily. When the project was dissolved, Manskiy assembled the pieces … and added the secretly saved snippets from when he kept the cameras rolling between takes. The result is a documentary on the attempts of a Communist government to stage an illusion of perfection. It comes off as a foolish propaganda effort to convince the world that North Koreans are a happy people. What we see on screen convinces us otherwise.
At the center of all this is 8 year old Zin-mi and her family. If you thought The Monkees were a pre-fab TV version of The Beatles, this shows what true manipulation is all about. Zin-mi’s parents are given new jobs for the movie version. Rather than a print journalist, her father is given a job as an executive at a garment factory; and rather than a cafeteria worker, her mother is presented as working at a soy milk factory. Additionally, the family is moved into a nice apartment and then provided with meal time conversation, and even told where and how to sit and stand.
Zin-mi has joined the Childrens Union and the whole community is preparing for Day of the Shining Star – the national holiday celebrating the birthday of Kim Jong-Il; keeping alive the memory of their supreme leader who died in 2011. During these preparations, we see the clean streets and no-frills buildings, as well as the brainwashing that occurs during presentations and classes … the Japanese are labeled scoundrels, while Americans are cowards. The lingering images, and faces of those posing for photos, can’t mask the emptiness of the individuals.
The film reinforces more than enlightens, and it’s more a rare snapshot of this society than a global perspective. Still, we can’t help but feel saddened for the people as their lines are fed to them with directions like, that was “too gloomy”, and, do it again with “joy”. No proof of the brutal regime is presented, but it’s obvious freedom of thought is not encouraged. The correlation becomes all the more ironic when it’s recalled that the title of that Twilight Zone episode was “It’s a Good Life”.