Sun Mu: From North Korean Propagandist to Pop Art Defector
By Heenali Patel
On Friday 20 November, the Frontline Club hosted a premiere screening of the documentary I Am Sun Mu, a remarkable insight into the life and work of North Korean defector and political pop artist Sun Mu. The film follows Sun Mu as he prepares for his first solo exhibition in Beijing in 2014 while trying to remain hidden from the Chinese authorities – a feat that proves more challenging than he, or the filmmaker, had anticipated. The screening was followed by a Q&A session with director Adam Sjöberg.
The documentary is peppered with Sun Mu’s work, from rosy-cheeked North and South Korean children running through a pastel-lit field to a grotesque portrait of Kim Jong Il posing in a bubblegum pink tracksuit. The artist recalls life under the regime, and the subsequent paranoia of living in hiding, over bold animation sequences that become an essential part of the storytelling process.
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Sjöberg began the discussion by answering a question on how he originally approached Sun Mu, particularly given the artist’s objection to revealing his true identity in fear that it would endanger the family that he left behind in North Korea over a decade ago.
Sjöberg explained that he met Sun Mu through the organisation Liberty in North Korea. “Over a relatively short amount of time, he grew to trust me… That was in 2013, and it was about a year later that I found the hook to pin the story to, which was the exhibit in Beijing.”
“As far as I know, no other North Korean has had a solo exhibit in Beijing that was not sanctioned by the North Korean government. So going into this exhibit, we already knew that it was going to be a relatively historic moment for North Koreans.”
Sjöberg later commented on the Korean conflict, saying that working with Sun Mu “helped solidify for me that change is going to happen on the peninsula… There’s a lot to overcome, but change is going to happen by people thinking differently about this issue and not toeing the party line because clearly that hasn’t been working for 60 years.”He said: “I was really interested in Sun Mu as a person because he talks about his divided heart. He creates images that are offensive to South Koreans as well. He’s creating images both of hope, but also images that are supposed to make you feel conflicted.”
When asked about how the animated sequences in the film were incorporated into the film, Sjöberg said: “Very early on, I had the idea of using animation to bring his paintings to life. My animator actually flew to Seoul and worked with Sun Mu to create the plates. The sketches were all inspired by actual sketches that we had him recreate for us, frame by frame.”
One audience member asked Sjöberg if he had been worried about footage from the exhibition being confiscated by Chinese authorities.
He responded saying that the curator from Yuan Art Museum, where the exhibition was being held, had actually expected it to be shut down by the authorities within 48 hours. “It was always known that this was not going to be an exhibit that lasted very long.”
Sjöberg also added that, “when the police started showing up, it became clear that things were a lot more serious than we thought. We had to scramble to make do, and be as safe as we could.”
Within hours of the exhibit being shut down by Chinese authorities, Sun Mu left the country. However, his work is yet to be returned to his studio in South Korea.
Sjöberg explained: “The concern is, will they make it out of China. That was his livelihood for the next year and a half. Luckily Liberty in North Korea has been great in supporting him, but that was an enormous body of work that is stuck in limbo.”