In Adam Sjöberg’s film I Am Sun Mu, Sun Mu is an artist and defector from North Korea who has exhibited throughout the world and is now about to hold his first solo exhibition in Beijing. The film is structured as a countdown starting two weeks previous to opening day, with Sun Mu arriving from South Korea at the home and studio of a fellow artist, Cui (Ch’oe in Korean), an ethnic Korean resident of the PRC who lives outside Beijing. The exhibition will be held without PRC supervision, but even so Sun Mu plans to keep a low profile throughout. “I work in hiding,” he says. “That’swhat makes art so fun.” And in the film his face is not revealed.
I Am Sun Mu (Na nǔn Sŏnmu ta) effectively employs a combination of images of Sun Mu’s artwork, archival footage, and interviews with Sun Mu, his wife Angela, and several colleagues to open a window onto the possibilities of artistic production in an environment in which Stalin infamously declared that literary artists are “engineers of the human spirit.”
Flashbacks reveal that Sun Mu grew up in rural North Korea believing steadfastly in his country until the 1990s famine following the death of Kim Il Sung. During his compulsory military service he was found to be talented in art and soon found himself turning out propagandistic artwork glorifying the sŏn’gun (“military first”) policy of the Kim Jong Il regime. Ultimately, though, hunger forced him to ford the river to China. He didn’t intend to leave North Korea forever; he simply wanted to eat at a time when fellow residents of his village were starving to death.
What surprised him most in China? The lights. Knowing that he would be returned to North Korea if detained in the PRC, he made his way to Laos, then to Thailand, the latter country a common way station for North Korean defectors bound for South Korea as their ultimate destination. Arriving in South Korea and determined to pursue a career in art, he was granted admission to Hongik University in Seoul, situated in a well-known arts district.
Emerging as the hero of the story is Liang Kegan, director of the Yuan Art Gallery in Beijing, where Sun Mu’s exhibition is to take place. A thoughtful and soft-spoken veteran of late 1989s activism in the PRC (the film contains brief footage of the iconic standoff between a lone protestor and a trio of tanks in Tiananmen Square), Liang is a champion of artistic freedom who yet realizes all too well the risks he is assuming in hosting an exhibition in which the floor at the entrance is overlaid with writing in hangǔl (the Korean alphabet) that includes the names of Kim Il Sung, his son and successor Kim Jong Il, and the grandson and current Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un; viewers of the exhibition will thus be trampling the names of these godlike figures in order to access the galleries.
Liang is familiar with North Korean art and mentions that there is no contemporary art to speak of in North Korea. Art that is sanctioned by the North Korean regime, he adds, is reminiscent of PRC art of 40 years previous. Another Chinese colleague, asked how best to describe Sun Mu’s style, proposes “political pop art.” Sun Mu does not disagree, but makes it clear he wishes not to be confined by labels—a sentiment attested by his exceptional talent for facial expressions, especially in the smiling eyes of the children he portrays, an undeniable symbol of hope.
Tension builds as the truckful of Sun Mu’s artworks arrive at the Yuan Gallery and his paintings and installations begin to fill the walls of the empty, cavernous galleries; opening day approaches. Sun Mu’s good wife and two small daughters have flown in from Korea to join him. None plans to appear in person for the opening.
Not surprisingly, the exhibition does not end well. We are left, though, with positive images of two men united in their belief that through artistic production they may be able to effect positive change in their restrictive environments. Although Sun Mu’s exhibition was shut down and few people were able to attend, Liang reminds us that in China now, artists know there is a North Korean defector artist. Thanks to Adam Sjöberg and his team, it is now the world that knows of Sun Mu.