It’s clear no one ever told Sun Mu, ‘don’t mess with North Korea.’
Nine out of ten people escaping from North Korea are captured by border guards, an offence which has two possible outcomes: jail or death. Sun Mu was the one out in ten that make it, swimming across the Tumen River in China in 1998. Famine was ravaging the country and Sun Mu had only one reason in his mind for leaving—he was starving.
It’s now 18 years later, and rather than go into hiding like many North Korean defectors, Sun Mu is doing the complete opposite. During Adam Sjöberg’s film, I Am Sun Mu we never actually see the artist’s face, Sun only ever being shot from behind or in the darkness, to ensure he is unidentifiable by the North Korean government. The repercussions of being identified are often paid for by extended family remaining in Korea, via the ‘three generations of punishment.’ This is one of those ‘does that still really happen’ things where the next three generations of family of an offender must pay by living in a forced labour camp, a modern day equivalent of a concentration camp where prisoners are starved, tortured and forced to work most hours of the day.
A talented artist who began creating propaganda art for the regime at the age of 18, the film follows Sun Mu preparing for his incredibly controversial solo show in Beijing. The controversial nature of this exhibition means he’s risking his life to do something that’s never been done before by a defector—making fun of North Korea, in public. Unlike the propaganda art of his former years, where he painted slogans about the evils of capitalism and replicated the god-like Kims, he’s painting the leaders standing under an upside down flag and wearing Mickey ears- an offence punishable by death in his homeland. He said he feared constantly whilst creating this particular painting in his studio in South Korea, feeling that someone would come from behind and stab him for the betrayal. And here’s a fun fact: Sun Mu also translates to English as, ‘no boundaries,’ a perfect name for a North Korean defector who one day hopes to exhibit his works that take the piss out of Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-il, in Pyongyang.
If you’re down for watching someone actually stick it to the man, as opposed to some teenager graffitiing a shitty wall at the local park in the name of rebellion, this one’s for you.