Anyone who’s read just about anything about North Korea probably knows that former leader Kim Jong-Il was a film fanatic. He wrote books about film and had a personal library of more than 20,000 films, possibly the largest collection in the world. This in a country where for the average citizen, having a foreign film or record could get you executed. Occasionally footnoted or mentioned in news pieces about Kim Jong-Il or Kim Jong-Un are the allegations that Jong-Il kidnapped some of his favorite filmmakers and forced them to work in North Korea.
These stories are usually referenced as an aside, an afterthought in stories about the Kims, one more drop in the seemingly infinite bucket of crazy that is North Korea, where official government records reference magical realist fairytales about unicorn lairs (note: I am not making this up). But those kidnappings were no joke – victims risked their lives to escape and who knows how many dozens or hundreds are still there. In A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power, author Paul Fischer finally gives the stories of two kidnap victims, Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok, the space they deserve.
Shin was at one point the most famous director in South Korea and Choi the most well-known actress (the South Korean Steven Spielberg and Angelina Jolie, say). As their careers were declining, Choi was lured to Hong Kong with the promise of starting an acting school there. Instead, she was lured to a remote beach by a mysterious woman, thrown in a body bag, drugged, and eventually smuggled aboard a container ship bound for North Korea. When Shin went to investigate, he too was kidnapped. It was 1978. It would be almost a decade before they escaped.
Once in North Korea, Shin and Choi became both honored guests and closely-guarded captives. Shin tried to escape twice but was recaptured and spent four years being tortured in a gulag while the outside world assumed he was dead. Eventually he was deemed sufficiently re-educated and released, and reunited with his then ex-wife Choi, in a strange sort of forced domesticity. The two made seven films for North Korea together, including a famously disastrous Godzilla knock-off called Pulgasari, about a monster who eats iron and kills a wicked farmer (if only people could eat iron, Kim Il-Sung’s industrialization policies might not have led to a historic famine). Kim Jong-Il loved it. To the rest of the world, it was an Ed Wood-style cult classic.
All the while, Shin and Choi tried to make movies well enough to please Kim Jong-Il, so that he would grant them increased freedom, enough that they could eventually escape (knowing they’d probably be executed if they were caught).
They finally escaped to the west and went to Hollywood, where Shin tried in vain for years to turn the story of his harrowing capture, captivity, and escape into a film, only to be turned down because no one wanted to bankroll a film with all Asian leads. Instead, Shin took the stage name “Simon Sheen,” (Shin, Sheen, get it?) conceiving 3 Ninjas, among a few other projects. In the process he learned that in many ways, working with Disney is more frustrating than working with a murderous, psychopathic dictator.
A Kim Jong-Il Production is a fantastically entertaining read, with a story that’s relevant in all sorts of ways you’d never expect. I defy you to read it and then watch Going Clear like I did and try not to see parallels. I recently spoke with Paul Fischer via Skype. (There’s also an audio version of this interview here, if you prefer).
“I realized fictionalizing it would be a massive waste.”
FILMDRUNK: Tell me about your background, how did you first come to this story?
PAUL FISCHER: Sure. I am a film producer and I tend to mostly originate most of the projects that I’ve worked on, and I’m a fairly hands-on producer, so I’m always on the lookout for stories, for ideas, for stuff that might have an interest. This story has very often been mentioned in passing in British newspapers, like when Kim Jong-il was alive, they’d write something about him. Every article seemingly had to end with a little coda about, “Kim Jong-il’s so crazy that he drinks this much cognac,” or “Kim Jong-il’s so crazy he claims he hit 11 holes in one the first time he played golf.” One of them was always, “Kim Jong-il is so crazy and so much of a film buff that he once kidnapped a filmmaker to force him to make films for him.” That always stayed with me, and I always liked the idea of using that as a basic concept for a story. The dictator kidnapping someone, a filmmaker who themselves is used to shaping worlds and being in control of worlds and what that interaction might be like. In the last few stops on the book tour, people keep bringing up Cecil B. Demented [the not-very-good John Waters movie from 2000] which I haven’t seen.
I didn’t think about that parallel but now it makes sense.
I was interested in the basic idea of it as a platform to look into a story. I think that came from the fact that because it’s always mention anecdotally, I assumed, all right well you had this film maker for a couple of days and then the guy is probably returned, or there is a ransom or something. It sounded like a small story. It was only a couple of years ago that just sitting in the pub with someone on New Year’s Day just trying to drink away a hangover, that I brought up this story for some reason completely casually. That was the first time the person I was with just asked me exactly what happened because I sounded crazy. I said, “Actually I don’t know what happened. I’ve never looked it up.” I looked it up more specifically and then I was hooked from there and very quickly realized that fictionalizing it would be a massive waste.
Then that brought you to Shin and Choi’s memoirs [published in Asia but never translated] and what other sources did you go through?
Weirdly I explored the whole North Korean end first in a sense that I wanted to get Choi on board and then noted she would give me access to materials and that kind of thing. I was aware of the memoirs, but I wanted to be able to talk to her so I could put her through the wringer and double check and triple check stuff, and ask her about it a million times and see if there’s any inconsistency. I went through their memoirs, eventually I went to interviews. I spoke to defectors. I read every book that I could lay my hands on, that I could have my Japanese or South Korean translators translate, by anyone who was around at that period of time in North Korea. Anyone who was around before or after, just in case they kind of brought up the detail.
I went straight into it. I worked on a proposal and once I got a literary agent, and they decided with me that once the book was announced, if someone bought it, I probably would be stopped from going to North Korea. So I went to North Korea quite early, and in Pyongyang I was able to buy different editions of their official history, which they rewrote every few years, but for some reason in the foreigner’s bookshops they haven’t got rid of the old versions. You can buy – in a Star Wars comparison – you can buy the original editions and then you can buy special editions, and you can compare what they changed and what they tweaked. That can help you make a timeline. As I was doing all of that in my office in London I had two walls – like one of those detective movies – with maps, timelines, stuff connecting. Really all the way through I was just looking for holes in [Shin and Choi’s] story, and stuff that didn’t make sense, or stuff that could corroborate things.
So you came at it like you were trying to poke holes in the stories from their memoirs if you could?
Yeah, because I figured somebody else would do it if I didn’t. The first few experts I spoke to were all skeptical in the way experts tend to be. The more times passed the more I realized that coming from a film background I maybe saw something in this, that people who came to it from a more political North Korean affairs background didn’t see, because to them it was a side show anecdote thing that they didn’t have an interest in looking into in more detail. I was aware there was such a big story here that if I wasn’t super rigorous and if there was a hole in it, somebody would find it after the book came out, and I’m the one who would be looking like a dick, really.
Right. So what was your experience in going to North Korea yourself?
It was eerie. Most people assumed I would have felt scared or threatened which I didn’t at any point. I knew the rules I shouldn’t break if I didn’t want to get into trouble. I’m not American so I’m of no bargaining value whatsoever [chuckles]. Because my passport, I’m Swiss, and the North Koreans think, Norwegians, Swedes and Swiss people are neutral, verging on friendly. It was just, you do feel the psychic energy of 20 million people who are suffering, but can’t mention it. While there’s a really flimsy coating of, ‘everything’s fine here’ but it’s bullsh*t. I used this analogy the other day, but it’s like going around a really horrific prison. You know it’s a horrific prison, but the inmates are the guides and they’re putting on this show about how the prison’s really lovely for you. You know its bullsh*t, they know its bullsh*t, but you just go through it anyway. Just heartbreaking, uncomfortable and surreal, and in the way other people have said, the second you land it just doesn’t feel like you’re on the same planet that you’ve been the rest of your life really.