It’s always nice when you are rewarded for staying at the end of a movie to read the credits. Among the names credited for the soundtrack of Adam Sjöberg’s documentary film I am Sun Mu is kayagum player Jung Ji-eun, a well-known player and teacher based in New Malden. It was also nice that she was present at the UK premiere at Raindance yesterday evening.
The documentary focuses on the preparations for a big solo show in Beijing by a political pop artist who goes by the name of Sun Mu. Like many North Korean defectors he tries to hide his identity in order to protect his relatives who had to be left behind. We never see his face – he is either in shadow, shot from behind, or deliberately unfocused – but we’re not sure how successful he was in remaining incognito. The start of the exhibition was crawling with North Korean officials sporting their Kim Il-sung badges (many of them had father and son on the same over-sized badge), and even the owner of the local coffee shop knew one of his new regulars as the wife of the North Korean artist – she had come from Seoul with their children to keep her husband company during the last few days of the hanging before the vernissage.
The artwork is very much in the pop art vein (in fact, I’m sure some reproductions were shown at the UK offices of Amnesty International at a defector event a couple of years ago). What was valuable in the documentary was having Sun Mu’s South Korean assistant and the Chinese gallerist talk about some of the works. Thus, unless you are very familiar with the DPRK flag you may not have spotted that the flag standing behind the sternly waving effigy of the Dear Leader in the publicity image for the film is in fact upside down, signifying that the country is the opposite of how Kim Jong-il likes to present it.
One particularly subversive work was a 5-metre long piece of calligraphy containing among other things the names of members of the Kim dynasty. Suspecting that there would be North Korean agents coming to see the exhibition, this calligraphy was laid on the floor, so that no visitor could avoid walking on it. And of course trampling on the name of a Kim in North Korea is something that gets you sent to the prison camps.
And how did the North Korean officials react? Well, it seems that the DPRK and China are still close enough that a solution can be found when a troublesome artist wants to give a treasonous exhibition. And the filmmaker was there to document the rather sinister and threatening response.
Worth watching, more for the discussion of the ark work than for any new insights about North Korea or the life of a North Korean defector in Seoul. Sun Mu himself remains of necessity a shadowy figure.
- North Korean defector trained in propaganda art now uses it to mock rulers, a review by Steven Borowiec in the LA Times, 2 November 2015