In honor (?) of the passing of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, I would like to present the greatest story ever stolen, er, kidnapped. (written 8/8/11)
I have a confession. South Korean films baffle me. They are not entirely bad by any means, but rather just confusing—mostly because of their seeming disregard for genre. “Host,” for example, is a light-hearted, dysfunctional family story until a giant Godzilla-type monster starts terrorizing the city. And from monster genre, it turns into this police-state allegory, then character-drama with a family being torn apart (emotionally, then physically). Then it’s a comedy again. Any ways, the most baffling aspect of South Korean cinema is that nobody has made a film about the most incredible story that ever fallen into an industry’s collective lap. This is the—I swear to God—true story of director Shin Sang-ok and his collaborations with North Korea’s insane dictator, Kim Jong-il.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Shin Sang-ok was one of the few critically renowned South Korean film directors, in a nation less than a generation out of the bi-Korean cease-fire. In the mid-1970s, Shin let it slip that he was critical of the repressive South Korean government and was promptly shut down by said sensitive government. By any measure, Shin was ruined by, and pissed at, his militaristic government. Doubly unfortunate, Shin was not alone in this sentiment and his famous actress/wife Choi Eun-hee divorced him. While packing her bags, Choi told him that she was going to Hong Kong, hearing about some filmmaker who wanted to work with her, specifically. In all likelihood, Shin collapsed in his chair, gave one of his Joe Every Man-thousand-yard stares and wondered how his life had become the first one-fifth of a Steven Spielberg movie.
In Hong Kong, Choi met with the filmmakers and, in an unusual casting technique, was kidnapped and smuggled to North Korea. Yeah, still think your job interview went bad? While Kim Jong-il wasn’t yet the head leader of North Korea (that position belonging to his father at this time), Kim was the director of propaganda and other spheres of political/military influence—including the filmmaking-arm. And the wheels in Kim’s head had been spinning for some time. As a young man, Kim Jong-il literally wrote the (or at least “a”) book on the relations between film art and spreading the greatness of North Korea. For years North Korean filmmakers disappointed him, despite all his threats, imprisoning, physical/psychological abusing, kidnappings and executions. So Kim, in all his batshit craziness, decided to import the best Asian filmmakers he could (this side of Akira Kurosawa, of course).
In South Korea, Shin Sang-ok hears rumors about his ex-wife being kidnapped and possibly killed in Hong Kong. Unlike The Honeymooners’ Ralph Kramden, who might celebrate some relief from his wife, Shin booked it to Hong Kong to start his own investigation. Amazingly, Shin found the kidnappers and they, appropriately, kidnapped him, too. In North Korea, Shin was placed in a pretty fancy hotel and even received his own guards who wanted to protect him so much that they stopped him from leaving, making phone calls or asking too many questions. Despite his eagerness to see the sights of the foreign city, they assured him, no, there was nothing to see or do and to stay in his room. Before long, Shin attempted to escape the premises but was caught. Insulted, the North Korean guards move Shin and decided to put the film director somewhere really safe…prison.
In the North Korean prison, Shin ate grass, salt and the occasional side dish of rice. To be even bigger jerks, Shin was told his kidnapped wife was dead. Reflecting on his time there, Shin has said, “I experienced the limits of human beings.” And that is how he spent his life for the next FOUR YEARS.
Then something strange happened. (Finally!) In his jail cell, Shin received a dinner invitation to the grand palace of one Kim Jong-il. Starving, grieving and otherwise losing his mind, Shin is taken to the palace and led to a large dinner table, set for three. Kim Jong-il takes the head of the table and across from Shin sat somebody even more heart stopping: Shin’s wife, Choi Eun-hee.
Besting the imagination of any sitcom, this dinner was about to get a lot more awkward. Politely, Kim Jong-il apologized to both of his guests for their, separate, four-year imprisonment. Kim laughed to himself, embarrassed that he and his subordinates had mis-communicated a while back. Apparently nobody had caught the mistake earlier because it had just been “chaos back at the office.” Ah, well, Kim assured his undoubtedly speechless guests, the important thing is that we are all here and can talk about a future together. Specifically, Kim wanted Shin and Choi to creatively reunite and make movies for North Korea. They’d be paid well and have over 200 employees, and thousands of soldiers to use as overly synchronized extras.
It’s unclear if Shin and Choi ever really ate at their dinner with Kim Jong-il, but what is certain is that the dictator rambled for over two hours about communism and cinema. And then, as if to blow on a stunned opponent for a knockout-hit, Kim Jong-il asked the divorced couple Shin and Chio to get back together.
Try to imagine all this. Your studio was ruined. Your actress-wife divorced you and you both got separately kidnapped. Then placed in North Korean prison for nearly five years. Completely out-of-the-blue invitation to eat dinner with the future ruler of North Korea. A sizeable financial offer to go back to making movies—or face execution. And then the man, who reportedly believes he can change the weather with his mind, asks that you remarry your ex-wife. That is where we last left off.
While at the dinner table for two hours, Kim Jong-il explained his cinema dilemma to his South Korean prisoners/guests Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok. North Korean filmmakers were limited in education and inspiration because many of the global filmmaking industries (U.S., England, France, Japan, etc.) were enemies of the state. Kim himself knew of North Korean’s shortcomings because he owned, in 1983, 15,000 films—in reel form, stored in a three-floor archive. Kim’s discussion with himself, witnessed by Shin and Choi, took a nosedive into a diatribe and has since played a major role in American-Korean relations.
How? Choi smuggled a tape-recorder into the meeting. The 45-minutes captured provide an unparalleled window of frankness into the unusually candid thoughts of the dictator. The tape has since been circulated among international intelligence agencies not solely possessed as the Dr. Claw to Fidel Castro’s Inspector Gadget (“I’ll get you next time!” ). Indeed, that tape is really what spurred the image of Kim Jong-il that Westerns have come to see/parody, topping out in the 2004 film “Team America: World Police”—a film Kim, in all real likelihood, saw and owns.
So Shin and Choi got to making movies again, with mid-level budgets, no expectations and a staggering amount of creative freedom. It almost sounds that a good couple of years, and even was during the smallest moments. Shin held periodic story conferences with his sole producer, and world leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Nah, just kidding. It was Kim Jong-il. Shin and Kim found some cultural overlap and appreciation for historical dramas. Shin worked behind the camera and Choi worked in front—at one point creating the first on-screen kiss in North Korean cinema. With no less than an army to his head, Shin’s first 6 films pleased Kim.
Despite the ultimate creative freedom and spouse-reunion afforded to Shin and Choi, they made frequently discussed escaping, though perhaps none as urgently as on their trip through USSR-occupied Berlin. Shin and Choi, like always, were ushered to the designated destinations by an entourage of armed guards. At one, point they were within a block of the U.S. embassy and Choi tried to make a run for it. Shin tackled her right there, saying that he would not allow the two of them to try an escape unless they were 100% certain to get away with it. 99% certainty wasn’t good enough for Shin who had not only spent over four years in prison for his last escape attempt but also already underwent the pain of losing Choi once before.
During one of the film shoots, Shin realized it’d be kind of cool to blow up a real train and tentatively asked one of his assistants to pass along the requests to his unstable, military-minded, film producer. Within days, Shin got the go-ahead. The go-ahead to blow up a North Korean train. For a film nobody would see outside of North Korea. As Shin and Choi were far from content in their employed imprisonment, it’s possible that Shin was just having a little bit of fun with Kim—asking to destroy North Korean military property under the guise of filmmaking. Best. Sabotage. Ever.
Inspired by this (minor) act of destruction against the regime, in 1985 Shin took up Kim’s suggestion to do a Godzilla-esque monster story, called “Pulgasari.” This gets a little confusing (oh, NOW you tell me), but this idea of a monster growing large and desecrating an Asian population was something of a story-telling stable over there. In fact, there was a Godzilla-esque monster movie called “Bulgasari” released in 1962. And even now “Pulgasari” (1985) is frequently (yet incorrectly) referenced as “Bulgasari”—again, despite any production relation to the real “Bulgasari” (1962).
As a film, “Pulgasari” just may well be the Fran Tarkenton of insane Korean films. 1970s gibberish, occasionally separated by screams of extras—mostly civilian-clothed North Korean soldiers. While “Godzilla” may be bold and stirring with its sardonic parody of U.S. nuclear power flattening, then eventually saving the Japanese population, the symbolism of “Pulgasari” is so formless yet heavy-handed that you’d swear that Kim Jong-il threw mud at the camera lens and Shin just kept it there out of spite. Pulgasari is a monster born of rice balls who eats metal to grow big and protect the poor peasants of Korea. Seeking justice, or perhaps just food, Pulgasari launches an animalistic attack on industry centers in the city, only to grow larger. With the former (capitalist?) regime in ruins, Pulgasari turns on the peasants and just all around acts like every step he takes crushing the city is stubbing his toe.
Had Shin, South Korea’s own Orson Welles, gone insane? Only as insane as the smartest fox, apparently. Because Kim Jong-il absolutely LOVED “Pulgarasi.” After seeing the film, Kim through the entire film studio a feast, likely totaling some 60% of the nation’s daily food supply. Kim praised “Pulgarasi” as the best film ever made, which is ridiculous because it was not named “The Lion King” nor starred Jake Busey.
The next movie, Shin promised Kim, is going to be something special. And Kim agreed. It was time the world saw the brilliance of North (South?) Korean cinema. But for such global reach, they’d need to team up with an international film distribution, and so for the second time in their eight years as royal artists/prisoners, Shin and Choi got to go to Europe.
Taking a cue from the movies, the South Korean couple would save their best scenes for the end.
In 1986, after the “success” of “Pulgarasi,” Shin suggested that the next film be a retelling of Ghengis Khan’s life. Kim jumped at the idea and agreed that this would be North Korea’s breakout film. Shin and Choi were sent to Vienna, Austria to meet with a European distributor, under the “protection” of North Korean armed guards, of course. Before meeting with the distributor (who only may have ever existed), Shin and Choi got lunch with an old friend, a Japanese film critic who had heard of “Pulgarasi” and, more importantly, his friends’ shoot-on-sight tail. This Japanese man has since been referred to as “K” in official government correspondences, foreshadowing some shit went down.
And went down it did. During their lunch, “K” sneaked the couple out of the restaurant and the three of them got into a taxi—it’s unknown if this was a taxi-driver’s dream-come-true or if “K” just went ahead and hot-wired the ride. We’ll go with “hot-wiring” because the three of them raced through the streets of Vienna, that were inches wider than the car, with the North Koreans chasing in pursuit. Considering “K” was a film critic and the other two were a married couple, the equivalent scene in “The Bourne Identity” is actually a water-down version of this real life chase scene.
Eventually, “K” Tokyo-Drifted his way to within a foot of the U.S. embassy and everybody got out and pled for asylum, having it granted at least quick enough. It can also be assumed the North Koreans growled from across the streets with the driver slamming his hands on the steering wheel of the taxicab they ACTUALLY STOLE. Or perhaps the North Koreans simply crashed their cab in the most cinematic way possible at some point towards the end of the race. Also, do you think there were any Austrian police cars involved? Because I think so.
For reasons defying logical explanation, Shin and Choi were not immediately embraced by their home country of South Korea and instead stayed in America for some time. The South Korean government was skeptical why it had taken the couple eight years to escape and why they had accepted payment for making movies in North Korea. Furthermore, they would not allow Shin to show the movies he had made (and smuggled with him through Vienna?), because they MIGHT display the cinematic prowess of North Korea.
America, to our own end, has spent decades deciphering and hypothesizing the thought process, mental capacity and overall sanity of Kim Jong-il. In most regards, it seems this man was, and is, a paradox of power. More so than in any other recent example, Kim was dependent on his prisoners. He was so adamant that North Korea’s failing was in logistics, not message, that he was willing to sacrifice (or at least risk) the purity of his message. Notably, he did not kidnap European, American or even Japanese filmmakers, but rather South Koreans; indicating that perhaps Kim sees Koreans as one people and that the South Koreans are not so much “enemies of the state” as they are innocent Koreans who have been led astray by capitalism and/or democracy.
At no point is Kim’s insanity predictable, though, as in response to the escape of Shin and Choi, North Korea claimed the couple were con artists who embezzled $2.3 million out of the government. And, afraid that story had a few holes in it, North Korea issued another statement claiming that the couple voluntarily worked for Kim but were kidnapped by Americans.
Continuity the baffling hilarity, when the Japanese film-going audience heard about “Pulgasari,” they begged Kim Jong-il to release the film beyond his borders. Despite his archival-knowledge, Kim had not heard of “camp” films (Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the like) and eventually gave in to international cinema pressure in the late nineties. The film was received on par with a plague of locusts in some circles and snickering riot in other circles. Had the monster movie, released in 1998, been received any worse, it would have starred Matthew Broderick. (Boom!) Kim then, essentially, screamed that only people who liked the movie are invited to his birthday party.
To this day, North Korea’s film industry still pumps out about 60 films a year but it is very unclear what the movies are about, who is making them and what they are like—as Western culture is still non-existent outside of Kim’s palaces. Kim, to his credit, now says cartoons are his favorite movies.
So, uh, word of advance to my animation friends: don’t pursue job offers that take you to Hong Kong.