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.
“The only two places I’ve been able to find who follow exactly those steps are the Church of Scientology and the North Korean Workers’ Party.”
Also I thought I saw on Twitter that you watched the Going Clear documentary the other night about Scientology?
No, I hadn’t watched it, but I’ve read the book.
Okay. When I was watching I saw – I read the book also – it seemed like there were so many parallels between the way Scientology uses family members as anchors and the way that North Korea does. Did you think about any parallels like that when you were reading that?
Yes, hugely so. I read the book when I was in the first year of writing. Actually, I offended someone in LA at a Q&A the other day because we were talking about brainwashing [chuckles], and the Chinese way they try to do brainwashing. In the Korean war, they had exact steps for doing it. You isolate someone, you play on an emotional thing, you try and make yourself the safe person et cetera, et cetera. It’s in Going Clear and it’s in my research and the only two places I’ve been able to find who follow exactly those steps are the Church of Scientology and the North Korean Workers’ Party. They’re hugely similar, it always gives me a bit of a cynical chuckle the way they’d built, in Going Clear, about L. Ron Hubbard trying to start film a company in the Caribbean. Every megalomaniac has a little film making episode, because it just suits somehow. The whole structure and the whole way of the wearing of armbands and sending people down to work in the bowels of the ship to redeem themselves. That’s the same lingo North Koreans use about people who go to prison to cleanse themselves.
When they salute a dead guy, it looks the same, like there’s a giant portrait of L. Ron on the wall, and they’re all saluting it just like Kim Il-Sung
Yeah, absolutely. The lying about your past and the self-mythologizing that Scientology’s born out of, this science fiction writer’s dreams and fantasies, and the North Korean cult personality comes from this film nerd, basically.
Yeah, very, very similar. Also, on a really base level, like the obsession with the purity of women but also young, pretty woman. It’s extremely similar in lots of ways, as I guess a lot of cults would be, I suppose.
And then there was also the parallel where there’s all these former Scientologists, and there’s past footage of them talking about how great it is, and then the Church uses that as a way to discredit them once they come out against it. That made me think of the scene in the book where [Shin and Choi] are at the press conference, and they’re having to tell everyone that they haven’t been kidnapped. When they turn people into a spokesperson for the regime, is that like insurance to make it harder for them to defect and is it easier to discredit them once they do?
Yeah. That’s one of the levels. The first level is it’s a propaganda coup because, we forget, but at the time, a lot of people wondered if North Korea was the more successful, more valid of the two Koreas. It was almost like you sign a star basketball player and you have a press conference and he’s standing with their jersey and you are now part of this team. That was the first level. They would have that. It was like the casting announcements. These guys think we’re the best system and that that might convince other people, but definitely it was also so you could muddy the waters later and say, “Look, they said themselves that they wanted to come. It’s here, it’s on film” and that would confuse people. Which the South Koreans then did as well because the second you escaped, as it says in the book, the South Koreans then made you give a press conference saying it was all lies. At the end of the day, it didn’t really serve either regime, it just serves to completely screw over the human beings in the center of it.
That’s something the North Koreans still do. There’s that book, Escape from Camp 14 – which was also made into a documentary – that’s based on a defector’s testimony. They spent the last couple of years using his family members who are still in North Korea in the “Church”, and using old quotes and old footage and whatever to discredit anything he says. They found a couple of discrepancies and suddenly everybody’s treating him like he’s got nothing valid to say, which is what the Church of Scientology would do to people.
“It’s more complicated than just gritting your teeth and pulling your bootstraps up and not giving in to the bad guys.”
Yeah, I haven’t, but again I’ve read [Charles] Jenkins‘ book, so I’m familiar with that world. [Jenkins and Dresnok are believed to be the last two surviving American defectors, out of four. Jenkins was released in 2004 and lives in Japan with his wife, while Dresnok apparently still lives in North Korea.]
What are you seeing when in the Crossing the Line you’re watching Dresnok praise the North Korean regime and talk about how great it is? When you see people do that, what are you seeing in them? Is it just straight fear?
It depends on the people. I think there’s some people who it’s straight fear. There are some people who – a lot of the POWs in the Korean War – who were taken to Chinese camps and then were made to say things like that or performing things like that. They were taking the piss and they’d pose for pictures in which they’d be giving the finger with that photographer not seeing, as they were grinning and wearing their pins [chuckles]. Then there’s people, for instance Jenkins, who I think go through it without thinking of the ramifications necessarily, or who in a very immediate way that means you only get treated better tomorrow, and it’s not a big moral decision, it’s a survival decision. They exert this pressure on you that it’s expected when you visit North Korea. The first thing you do off the plane is they drive you to the statues. They try and make you spend five euros on flowers [chuckles], and they try and make you put the flowers at the foot of the statue, step back and bow, which everybody does. The odd person like I did went, “Yeah, there’s no way I’m doing that.” [chuckles] Then they actually treat you like you’re being rude almost in a family setting, you’re insulting a host that you’re being culturally insensitive. I can see that being powerful.
But you can get away with that?
Yeah. It was like my guides looked offended. Like I’d called them something racially insensitive, or I’d stepped into a Church and spat on the floor or something, but I stuck to it and after five minutes that was that and it was never mentioned again, because they go back to trying to please you. There’s a documentary, have you heard of or seen The Red Chapel? [a 2010 documentary by Mads Brügger, director of The Ambassador, in which Brügger takes a Korean-Danish comedian with cerebral palsy to North Korea.]
I have. Yeah.
Yeah and that’s a big thing in that documentary, the idea of one of the guys finding it really anathema to play along, and the other guy feels like that’s the only way they’re going to get under the skin of the problem, is to try to get into the mindset.
That’s the weird thing about everything about it is meant to dehumanize anybody who’s in it. Instead of seeing this human being who might have one of a dozen different motivations to be standing there and saying, “All praise Kim Il-Sung. I’m happy to be in a worker’s paradise,” it just becomes a slogan. It just erases the individuality for the sake of that slogan, and completely discredits any individuality, which works amazingly well.
There’s the famous stories like Unbroken or even John McCain when he was a POW, where they’re prisoners of war and they refuse to do propaganda for the enemy. Do you think knowing stories like that, does that take away our empathy for people who actually were forced to do propaganda for a regime like North Korea?
I think so, maybe. I think it’s always easier on the sidelines to feel like, “yeah I’d be a hero, I’d take a stand.” If you’re starving, you’re alone, you’re scared you’re never going to see anybody you loved ever again, all you have to do is sign a piece of paper and say a sentence, you probably would. I think everything in our narratives is about this black and white morality, villains and heroes. Yeah, we all celebrate the story of the guy who never gave in and as an extension look down on everybody who did, and maybe it’s not as bad as a crime as we make it. I think everyone’s more comfortable with black and white morally rather than a bunch of shades of grey, and being comfortable with people doing stuff that isn’t ideal, that they’re not in ideal circumstances, and it’s more complicated than just gritting your teeth and pulling your bootstraps up and not giving in to the bad guys.
“I definitely think there’s a specific time in North Korean history where Kim Jong-Il took over the spy ops and covert ops, and immediately their covert ops began behaving like they were in an action film.”
Especially with North Korea, it seems like a lot of the defectors’ stories are about how they had to bide their time and pretend to really love the regime, and that was what got them close enough to be able to escape.
Yeah, and that’s something that people don’t really understand. I spoke to a bunch of people who spoke to me about knowing that everything was a lie, but you’re still lying to your kids. You’ve heard of people who tell the truth to their kids, and then their kids mention it to a teacher, or a classmate and then in the middle of the night somebody knocks on the door and you’re all going to a prison camp. So you have to pass on the lies to protect yourself, until the time you’re not passing on the lies any more. That’s a very universal thing, the stories of people of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine or from old Soviet countries. There’s endless memoirs of people who talk about growing up, being really proud of being a Soviet, then they’d finally get a visa to leave and they get to Lisbon or they get to Jersey or something and their dad would sit them down and go “Look, everyone’s been lying. The system’s terrible. America isn’t the enemy, we’re the enemy.” We just can’t go around saying that because life is a lot more complex than just standing up saying, “I’m Spartacus,” and getting mowed down basically.
The way that the north Koreans are taught to hate America from birth and then Kim Jong-il, most of his favorite movies or at least some of them were Hollywood movies. Do you think that they fetishized Western things? Like, “Oh it’s so bad and it’s so naughty,” and then they want it so much more?
I think in the elite, definitely. The general people, they don’t know. I saw a lot of kids in North Korea who had Spider-man backpacks and Mickey Mouse backpacks. I was talking to somebody the other day about the contradiction in that, and they were telling me that most of the kids think those are Chinese characters because they buy them from Chinese guys at the black market. I think the normal people are so isolated that they don’t even have really an awareness of what country is America or what isn’t good, they get it under such a different looking glass. Definitely Kim Jong-il the people around him, his family, the elite, they’re materialistic, power hungry people, and the biggest, shiniest, coolest stuff comes from the enemy.
What else did you learn about Kim Jong-il’s personal movie tastes? I know you wrote that he showed his bodyguards In The Line Of Fire with Clint Eastwood as an example of how they should act. What were some of his other favorites?
Shin would describe it – and he said this once – Kim Jong-il really liked the kind of films your average 20-something year-old would like [laughter]. Any of those Bond films, horror films, action films, Rambo. He loved Sean Connery, he loved Elizabeth Taylor. He loved big, blockbustery stuff. There’s an element, it feels to me, of arrested development, where it’s not just the American stuff but even his favorite Japanese film franchise was a very maudlin broad, family comedy. They weren’t sophisticated tastes in any way. Very much a young, not hugely educated man’s tastes where he liked the laughs, action and babes, and simple emotions.
There’s so much comedy in that, isn’t there? Where there’s this guy who’s running a country, who is writing books on the national cinema, who also just has the tastes of a 14-year-old?
Definitely, and even more so because they take it so seriously. That brilliant line about how it took him three nights to write his cinema book was, ‘Marx took years to write Das Kapital.’ It’s so serious, straight-faced and laughable. Yeah, there’s a complete absurdity to all of it. When you go to North Korea all the guides – it’s like you get these two minders – like in The Red Chapel, who look after you constantly, then if you go to any specific monument or museum, or people’s reading house, there’s a specific guide there who shows you around. You feel like you’re in a 1960s Bond film because they’re all young, stunning women in 1960s Pan Am outfits. The traffic girls are all like that. It’s not just the film-making tastes and him writing these books and everything, but it’s almost like he’s treating this country as his fantasy box.
Yeah, and Gaddafi did that too, right? It’s such a weird thing that happens to all of them, it seems like.
I think it’s just the element of control. It’s almost like, I wouldn’t have put this in the book because it’s all assumption, but there’s almost something darkly Werner Herzog-y sweet about the idea that, in the day job control means killing and torturing and sending people to camps, but then, in his time off, he’s planning out the beautiful women he’s going to have in his perfect city. It’s completely sociopathic.
Right, like he’s playing with his Tinker toys.
You also wrote that Kim Jong-il would watch a lot of those movies and treat them almost like they were docu-dramas. What were some of the ways that he would get movies confused with reality?
I definitely think there’s a specific time in North Korean history where Kim Jong-Il took over the spy ops and covert ops, and immediately their covert ops began behaving like they were in an action film. All the stuff that was information gathering, reporting all that, that went out the window. Assassination attempts, blowing sh*t up, hijacking planes, dastardly Darth Vader plans, suddenly they were doing that non-stop. Certainly their paranoia about the enemy’s covert ops and that kind of stuff, it’s completely over-the-top, and built on what you’d have in books or in films. At the end of his life, Kim Jong-il was obsessed with being underground all the time [chuckles] because of nuclear attacks, and that’s something that’s so, film-inspired, where you go to your war room underground to protect yourself. I think even just a perception of Americans as materialistic, debauched, wealthy individualists – for him, that came from films, really. He had no experience of real life in any way, having never really left the country, so there’s nothing really conflicting with that.
“The Interview wasn’t a good movie, regardless of anything about North Korea.”
There’s so much crazy sh*t that he actually did. In Jenkins’ book, and he’s talking about how Kim Jong-il had a spy breeding program [where North Koreans would force foreign-born North Korean residents to marry each other and breed ethnically ambiguous, indoctrinated North Koreans that could spy for the regime]. Some people will say that that stuff’s not true, but some of the crazy sh*t that is true is so crazy. Is there anything that comes out about the North Koreans, like any of the conspiracies about North Korea that you don’t believe?
There’s stuff that it’s not so much I don’t believe necessarily, but where the lines are really muddied. For instance, Kim Jong-un the current guy, when he killed his uncle and you had all the stories in the newspapers about how he killed him, feeding him to dogs. That’s something that immediately strikes me as not true, but it could be the kind of thing that’s not true but still put forward by the North Korean government, because it’s myth-making, the way you would in a gang or something.
Yeah. Was there like a cluster bomb execution at one point too?
Yeah, exactly and all that stuff. Clearly, it’s bullsh*t. They execute people by shooting them in the head, but if it maybe comes from them, and if it’s part of how they want to spread the word about themselves, you can’t just dismiss it entirely. Then there’s the things, that just get lost in translation. There’s a famous one about Kim Jong-il inventing the hamburger. That is in the official texts, what it says is that he imported the hamburger and made it his own. It doesn’t claim he completely invented it, it just claimed he remade it basically.
Right. That’s a Soviet thing too. The Soviets took the hamburger and called it something else, and then took the bread out. There’s a whole generation of Soviets who grew up thinking – I forget what the Russian word for it is – there’s this patty that they think is this traditional Russian delicacy that was actually something that their food guy tried to import and then it got lost in translation and now it’s like a Russian thing. [The kotleta, which Anya Von Bremzen talks about in the last BookDrunk].
Exactly yeah and in North Korea it’s called “the meat between two breads” [chuckles], and it’s slightly different, but they never exactly said that he invented it. There’s a whole thing about him never going to the bathroom, or not having an anus or whatever. That comes from a specific story and actual propaganda that they say that he works so hard for the people that he’s taught himself, that he’s taught his body, to not have any bodily needs.
So he never eats and he never has to go and he runs completely on self-sufficient fuel. Those are stories which are really hard to ascertain whether it’s meant to be taken literally or not, or whether they’re leaving it up to the people, but we get it third-hand and it immediately becomes, ‘he never pees or poops,’ because the easiest, tweetable version of it.
Right. It seems like their whole mythology is magical realist.
Yeah, it’s all narrative and it’s meant to be a bit blurry, they never come out right and say, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are gods. That they tell all these stories endlessly then make them clearly they’re gods. They’re either gods or they’re comic book superheroes depending on how you approach it, but it’s never explicit, it’s all this myth-making, storytelling, they’re all like little fairy tales built around the same structure. He’s got a sidekick and he goes somewhere and a parable happens in a very traditional Asian oral history way. Then that gets all mixed into the communist stuff and creates its own thing.
I was really adamant that I really wanted to try and double-check everything that went into the book, because again, as you said, there’s so much that’s bat sh*t crazy, but that’s true that you don’t want it discredited by one thing that’s bat sh*t crazy, but clearly not true but will make everybody not believe the other bat sh*t crazy stuff that’s essentially true. I tried really, really hard to triple check everything, and that’s when it gets really surreal, when you’re triple checking them claiming that they found a unicorn’s graveyard [laughter]. That goes in the column of, ‘Yeah, cool. I’ve checked that one [laughter], that can go in.’ That’s when you actually start feeling like, I wish I’d made it all up. If I was George Orwell or someone writing a fiction book and I made up half the crap they made up, I would’ve written a classic, because it’s so insane.
Yeah, the unicorn graveyard thing, that wasn’t even the craziest part of that story?
Right. The crazy bit is that they’re not even paying attention to the unicorn bit, because to them it’s about finding this kind of noble lineage. It’s almost like we’re using the unicorn, but it’s a means to an end that we have this unicorn, and it completely breaks the suspension of this belief, because if you found a unicorn, you’d be more excited about the unicorn [laughter]. It’s just so bizarre.
Did you see The Interview?
I did, yeah.
What were your thoughts on that?
The thing is to me, it wasn’t a good movie, regardless of anything about North Korea. In all the stuff lately in the news about the genesis of it, about it not even being meant to be Kim Jong-un to start with and all of that. That’s something that I say you can feel in the film because it doesn’t in any way make the most of that kind of North Korean environment and situation. The weird thing to me I think – and I’m not necessarily the target audience for their films – but this actually felt like a wasted opportunity for me in the sense that the basic premise, which is that they have an American guy who peddles sh*t to the populace, goes somewhere to interview a guy who peddles sh*t to his own populous, but in a much more explicitly dangerous, hateful way. That way you can have a satire on media, propaganda, fakery and all of those things and that’s a really great basic premise for approaching something in North Korea in a way that’s satirical.
Right, to have the parallel between the two guys?
Yeah, exactly. It becomes something that’s more complex than just good guys go to see the bad guy because you look at something more again in the grays and less comfortable than that.
Right, like they made their relationship a bromance as opposed to two guys who were doing the same thing in slightly different, like, fun house mirror ways.
Exactly. Weirdly the weird thing is, the bromance thing can almost work if you’re going to be really cynical about it. If say, instead of having James Franco play a moron necessarily, cynical broadcast media guy. One of the guys is responsible for putting theme music and logos on the news [chuckles], but then he meets this dictator who’s building a cult of personality. and he finds a f*cking kindred spirit, because that’s a guy who knows how to sell something.
Yeah and that’s great satire, but two idiots go to Asia and shove stuff up their butt isn’t.
“What always fascinated me was that he would always say when he thought of creative freedom, he thought of North Korea.”
All right tell me about Pulgasari, have you seen it and what about the production made it? What about the circumstances of how it was made affected it becoming such a ridiculous cult movie?
I have seen it and it’s on YouTube, if you want to have a couple of awesome hours later.
I bought it on DVD. I haven’t watched it yet.
Have you? Yeah the YouTube version’s not the best quality so good going on a DVD. The thing is, I was always fascinated by the fact that Shin was a good to great filmmaker until Pulgasari, which is a terrible film, and then everything he made from there on was terrible. I was always fascinated by that and my editor brought it up in my first draft because he was like, ‘You say this guy’s a great filmmaker, I haven’t seen any of his films, but then you’ve got this chapter on this Godzilla film and suddenly he’s awful and that doesn’t make any sense.’ The first one is, Shin was the guy who loved neo-realism and Rossellini and painting. You don’t win any prizes for guessing who of him and Kim Jong-il came up with the monster movie [chuckles]. I can imagine Shin being out of his comfort zone a bit making that.
Then there’s the fact that, just in the simple making of the film, Shin was finishing at least one of the other films. He’d never been working on two other films at the same time and he was preoccupied with the tiny matter of escaping from imprisonment, and because Kim Jong-il didn’t want anybody corrupted. As it touches upon in the book, all the Japanese crew were kept separate from the Korean crew, which included Shin and Choi who met the Japanese crew a couple of times, nothing more. Because the Japanese crew are doing all the monster stuff, that means he had no control directly over how that stuff was shot. All the really terrible technical mistakes, like the monster changing sizes and stuff, that’s because there was a special effects crew just working through a shot list who didn’t really want to be there. They were told they’re going to China for a couple of months and suddenly here they are in Pyongyang for ages. I think all those things definitely played into it.
I think Shin had got to a point in his life where he’s tired, not especially inspired, and he wasn’t making films following his own instinct, but he was making films to try and achieve a secondary purpose. At that point he was making films trying to please Kim Jong-il so he could get a bit more leeway. Then later on in life he was trying to make films so that he could recapture his magic touch and reassert himself. So his innocent, creative motives were gone.
Yeah, did he just learn how to pander to an audience and never forgot, never stopped doing that?
I think so. Also, he was a guy who knew exactly what his audience wanted, but then, even before he got kidnapped he lost that, and was just desperately trying to get it back. Because he’d convinced himself that being an artist was a bad thing, was a pretentious thing, I don’t think from anything I’ve read that he said or anything he’s done, that he was comfortable telling himself and making this film this way because it’s the right artistic way to make this film. He made films this certain way because he thought that was the way audiences would like them the best. I think once he lost that he was desperately trying to get that back. Then you’re just making tripe because you’re just trying to cater to whatever people liked last year, or what you think they might like, or what you think is the lowest common denominator, and Pulgasari is definitely one version of that. I think you need a goofy sense of humor to make those things fly. You need to not take them too seriously. You have a real passion for them because even the original Godzilla films, they’re amazing films but also crappy B movies.
Right. They’re silly.
Yeah and Shin didn’t have the sensibility that he could do that comfortably, in a way, that by accepting this silliness, you make them believable. So they’re just stupid.
Tell me about some of the movies that he made once he came to Hollywood. What was there, there was Three Ninjas and then a few others?
Yeah. Three Ninjas were the main ones and those are really difficult to separate because they made the first one, which Jon Turteltaub directed, which Shin came up with, which I remember watching as a kid and loving, and watching them over and over again. The first one worked well enough that they made a couple of sequels, but the sequels are shot in a different order than they came out. I think there was one sequel that is chopped into two movies and everybody’s credits got mixed up, because Shin surrendered everything to Disney from an ownership point of view because he was out of his element with the American lawyers basically.
Yeah, there’s a scene in the book where he talks about having to deal with Disney lawyers, and having it be a more difficult experience than dealing with Kim Jong-il.
Yeah, because in South Korea he was a hustler. In North Korea he had one guy who wanted to make films who was Megan Ellison, basically, who went, “Yeah I like this, I’ll sign a check you’re off [laughter].” Then in Hollywood he had a bunch of faceless guys in suits just hammering out every aspect of the deal which is just never the way he made a film and in Korea’s culture, not the way you do it. That just wasn’t him, and it’s conflict that’s entirely cultural. Like when I wrote an agreement for Choi and how to do her interviews and to let me use pictures and stuff, the guy who helps her do stuff was just stunned and upset and out of place, because what he wanted to do was to charge me for everything without ever writing anything down in case he needed to charge me more for something later.
Shin was definitely lost in that sense. He made the ‘Three Ninjas’ franchise, and he conceived and produced the first one and it’s hard to tell what he did with other ones other than producing them and doing some directing. Then he produced a kid’s friendly remake of Pulgasari, again I think for the Disney channel called Galgameth, which is so bad, it makes Pulgasari seem good [laughter]. That’s one of the things when it feels like, to him at that point Pulgasari worked really well, and we’re just going to remake that. Three Ninjas is him going, Okay Karate Kid, Home Alone they worked really well, I’m just going to blend those and remake that. Those are the ones he made and then there’s some other one called The Gardener or The Gardener of Evil, The Garden of Evil. There’s various titles because again it’s so bad that every time it comes out on DVD they’d change the title. Which was a serial killer thriller with Malcolm McDowell and Angie Everhart. Which again he produced.
Is there a satire of Hollywood in there where this guy he’s sitting on this life story, that’s incredible where he’s stuck? It’s like Unbreakable times two in a lot of ways. He’s got this story and they don’t want him to tell his own story that he just has because the leads are Asian.
Yeah, literally. That’s it and he was desperate to make the film. At the end of his life, he was desperate to make a film of it. Really, that’s all it was. If there was a white dude in it I really think it would’ve gotten made and there would’ve been a huge film and we all would’ve seen billboards up and down Sunset in January for it. That’s what it comes down to. Even just the aspect like, here’s a guy who doesn’t speak English, who’s usually successful somewhere else, who comes to Hollywood and has the opportunity to try and resurrect it, and instead of doing anything of value he just recycles crap and makes stuff that’s worse and worse and worse. That’s also satirical.
Disney becomes his Kim Jong-il.
Yeah, exactly! He goes from one prison to the next, and just trapped in the same rules and just no creative expression.
What always fascinated me was that he would always say when he thought of creative freedom, he thought of North Korea.
“Unless somebody finds a way to cast Benedict Cumberbatch in it, I don’t think it’s happening.”
[laughter] Yeah. You’re a film guy. Are you working on a documentary to go with this at some point?
No. There are guys in England called Tigerlily Films here are making a documentary about it called The Lovers and the Despot. They interviewed me for the film. I actually feel terrible about it because I started working on the book just before they started shooting stuff for it, about six months before. When I read about their documentary, I was already working on the book and I thought, ‘Okay, this could be good, this could be bad.’ Then I met them and it turned out that they’d been doing research for four or five years before they started shooting. If that was me, I would f*cking hate the guy who wrote the book that’s going to come out first. So I feel terrible about that, but they’re amazing film makers. They made Three Days to [M?], which is a documentary about this hippie commune in Sweden, and they’re really good. It was human interactions in a weird world, but the thing that I think they’re finding challenging – which is one of the reasons I went for a book in the first place – was you have Choi Eun-hee who’s the only primary actor in it who’s still alive who’s able to speak.
So we have one person who’s actually there who’s able to speak about it. Then you have a lot of pictures, and you have clips from the films, but otherwise you don’t have a lot of immediate, I was there and a fly on the wall footage. Everything’s second hand and it might sound cynical, but in a real practical concern for a film like you have a lot of names that sound so incredibly similar that it’s confusing. In little Hong Kong everybody’s called Lee, or Kim, or Park and that’s one, but we don’t have pictures of anyone. I always thought, if this is a documentary you have to do a lot of re-enactments and maybe a voice-over and stuff, that just didn’t feel like what I wanted to do with it. That’s why I went to the book instead, and having meetings with people about making a fiction film or miniseries out of it, but again, unless somebody finds a way to cast Benedict Cumberbatch in it, I don’t think it’s happening.
[laughter] Yeah. So on that note of the Hong Kong scene, I did want to know, I didn’t remember what happened to Mrs. Lee, the lady who set them up to be kidnapped? What was her story?
I think like everybody else in that Hong Kong bit, she was convinced that she would be rewarded for it. Then because you’re more of a threat than not you don’t get rewarded. So I think the guys who worked in Shin’s film in Hong Kong, they took their payoff and that was their reward. Whereas Mrs. Lee I think was a believer in the Workers’ Party cause, and there’s no evidence for what literally would have been the reward would have been becoming a party member, or if her husband who did business in North Korea had troubles or something, but she didn’t expect that she’d just be bundled up and taken away without knowing what would happen to her or her daughter. But Choi never saw her again after that day, so who knows. That’s one of the things, the woman who looked after her, and everyone that they interacted with and made relationships with for eight years, you leave one day, and you’ll never ever know what happens to them.
Yeah like the Jordanian woman?
Yeah, any of them. There’s no way of knowing if any of those people are alive or dead, or if they suffered, if they were punished. To a smaller degree when you visit North Korea, and you have your two guides, you get to know them over a week or several weeks or whatever and then you leave and you’re just very aware that, not that you speak to your tour guides when you go on holiday after you leave, but even if you wanted to there is no way to ever find out anything.
If you write something about the trip and then someone finds it, it’s like hey you’re going to go to prison.
Yeah, exactly or even in a more benign way one of my guys had a 10-year-old kid who loved the films and stuff that’s on television, that even in a more benign way, in a few years you want to send a Facebook message going, “hey how’s your kid, he’s still into films?” Like no that’s never going to happen. They’re in a part of the world that’s completely disconnected from everything.
One thing that strikes me about every defector story that I ever heard is just how hard it seems to be to escape even beyond the point when you think they’re already out. Like when Shin was visiting London, you think, “couldn’t he just run out into the street and scream for help?” What would the guards do in that situation, you think, if he had just run away in the middle of the street?
I think the most likely situation is they’ll probably chase him and bring him back to be punished, but I think it’s also very possible that if they felt that they wouldn’t be able to bring him back, that they would kill him or do real harm. I think that’s because their guards have been very aware that there would’ve been a high punishment for them screwing up. So if what they had to do is kill him to not be sent to Gulag when they get home, then maybe that’s what they have to do. The whole collective punishment is really strong, because you also know that your mum and dad are going to get punished, your kids are going to get punished, and that makes it really hard to predict what people would do. I think Shin had the added thing of he’d tried twice, he’d been punished in increasingly worsening ways both times and he had valid cause to feel that, “If I f*ck it up this time, I’m not going to get a fourth chance.”
For North Koreans themselves who grew up in the country, I think, you talk to a lot of them and there’s a feeling of omniscience in the state. They’re like, “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He sees you when you’re awake.” You can’t get away at any point to do anything private. That holds them back in trying to escape. One thing that took me a long time to realize is virtually everyone who’s escaped from North Korea who’s North Korean is either a member of the elite, who for whatever reason had to get out and they had the means to give themselves a bit of time and to go up to the border and escape. Or it’s only people who’ve lived near the Chinese border, because if you lived in one of the more landlocked counties, if you live in Pyongyang you can’t travel to the next lower village without a permit. So there’s no way you’re making it to the border without getting caught or detected. Those are people who have the most awareness of the outside world of anybody in North Korea. Still for them, escaping is this really difficult, emotional decision. When you do it, they get to China, China’s government is going to send them back anyway. That was one thing that really struck me that’s only marginally connected to your question, but that feeling of, “Okay, everyone I know has defected.” Almost anyone I’ve heard who’s defected is either from the elite or from this one specific area by the border, but that anybody, who’s more in the center of the country has no way of getting out. Even if they wanted to.
Right. The minders when they/re in foreign countries, I assume those guards must all have families back home, right? If they didn’t, the guards would probably just defect themselves?
Yeah, exactly. They only send people abroad who’ve got family, held back hostage, more or less. So, only married men with families get jobs that involve them going abroad, except for, very possibly some of the guards that Shin and Choi had, the kind of strict bodyguard corps Kim Jong-il do, are all orphans and unconnected. They wouldn’t have had the kind of coercion that there’s family members at home that you can mistreat, but they would have grown up being completely loyal to Kim Jong-il as their family from the start and probably not be thought of as a defection risk.
When we were talking about Going Clear, the Church of Scientology has a huge smear campaign going against pretty much everybody involved in that and the film makers. Have you dealt with that at all where North Korea is trying to discredit these people, or are they isolated enough that you can get away with it without worrying too much?
Who do you mean?
I mean like you, or Shin and Choi. Is there any sort of organized campaign to discredit their stories?
Once when they escaped and for a few months there was a big campaign with their ambassadors that said that Shin and Choi had stolen the money they were given to make films, and they weren’t prisoners who’d escape but they were people who voluntarily came to North Korea, and then spineless, untrustworthy South Koreans that they are, they stole money and ran away and made up a story. But since then I don’t know if it’s because it may be felt like it’s ancient history, it’s not out there so much today. So maybe they don’t feel like they have to discredit it so much, but there hasn’t been anything really that I can tell. Choi’s been on the news in South Korea, not recently because she’s in poor health, but in the last few years giving press conferences and stuff about North Korea and taking it seriously, and her being kidnapped and people should believe that she was kidnapped. I don’t think those even elicited a statement of condemnation from [North Korea]. I feel it’s partly maybe because it’s ancient history. I don’t think they want to draw that much attention to the kidnapping thing because some of the things I learned with writing the book is there’s a lot more evidence of these kidnappings having happened than people assume that there is. People treat them like there’s something that might’ve happened but there needs to be evidence, whether in fact it’s fairly obvious, clear and provable that they stole hundreds of people from their lives. I felt like it was something they don’t want to deal with or draw attention to.
I haven’t had anything against me in any way. It’s really weird if I have any twitter or spam box do anything abnormal on my account, my brain goes “Ooh North Koreans,” because you just get paranoid, but it’s interesting how there’s a video game that these guys are trying to raise money for on Kickstarter called Dear Leader, which is an old fashioned shoot-them-up game where you play Kim Jong-un fighting the evil imperialists [chuckles]. It actually looked awesome, and they use all the stuff like the unicorn and different settings, and that kind of thing. They had to shut down their Kickstarter twice, because they were being hacked by people that they were convinced were North Korean.
Sorry. Have you had any trouble – I know the UK libel laws are very strict – does that come into play at all when you’re trying–?
There’s nothing in there that I think you could say is libelous, because it’s all fairly well backed up. That’s one of the things that mildly upset them when the book came out, is I wrote really detailed end notes that the copy editors forgot to put into the first printing [laughter]. So they’re going to be in every printing, but you know I backed-up everything I could back up and the American publishers had a fairly stringent legal process where they had an outside lawyer go through everything. In Britain, no one really raised anything, but I think everybody was also very aware that everything came from a specific source. Obviously you’re talking about a North Korean dictator. It’s not something where you’re insulting some living businessman who lives in London, who’s going to take offense kind of thing.
Right, right. So last question I’ll ask. In the book, I can’t remember if it’s coming direct from you or if it’s something that Shin’s talking about, but you’re talking about the dangers of “subtle thinking,” which I interpreted as a criticism of making false equivalencies. The American system isn’t perfectly good, the North Koreans aren’t perfectly bad, but of course you can still say that they’re worse. Do you think there’s anything about the Kims or about North Korea, is there anything that we think about them that’s unfair? Is there any self-reflection that the West hasn’t done?
I don’t know. There’s definitely the issue of how we ended up in this situation, and that definitely came from western weakness and selfishness and trying to protect our own interests at the end of World War 2. That the peninsula wouldn’t be divided in this way, and wouldn’t have survived in this way if we didn’t make it so. That’s definitely something that we’re trying to forget.
And they used our indiscriminate bombing as their propaganda tool for 60 years, right?
Yeah, exactly, every bad thing you do has been used in the same way that Scientology does to people who escape or North Koreans do to defectors, every bad thing you’ve ever said or done is going to be used against you and has been used against the Americans. At the same time there’s also a flip side to that where we’ve all forgotten about the Korean War or treat it as a very senseless thing, when it was the first war fought by the UN. That was very specifically the world at large coming together to protect one country, that was trying to become a democracy, from an invading force, and the decision that was made very forcefully, very quickly and it wasn’t very popular at the time, was morally right. That’s in the plus column of behavior, but that’s also been forgotten and is an unfairness.
On a more specific note, I think Kim Jong-il for the longest time we treated as if he was insane, when there’s clear evidence that he wasn’t insane, but he was very very good at scheming and playing people against one another and a very good strategizer. I think definitely there’s a tendency now to treat the whole regime as a crazy rogue terrorist state, and just lump it in that general category without necessarily paying attention to some of the cultural aspects of why the regime behaves the way it does, involving saving face and dignity and all these things that we’re culturally blind to, because we try and fit it into our own moral framework. I think overall there’s absolutely no way of denying the fact that the western system’s much better than the North Korean regime or any system like it, and that you’d much rather live here than there.
I’m not someone who’s like hippy-happy whatever. I’m someone who watches Citizenfour and freaks the f*ck out, because you don’t know what to do about it. I’ve written articles in the UK because that’s how you mostly do press where you write articles connected to what your book is on in the Daily Mail and stuff. Just reading the comments, and obviously we’re not getting any rocket scientists [laughter] in the middle of the day on a Wednesday commenting on a Daily Mail travel piece, but just reading the people who are just commenting on how “that’s what Obama’s going to do to us!” That’s really nonsensical, where it’s not bad to say that that dictatorship is awful and is turning a respectable country into a sh*t hole and torturing its people, and saying that, for all its flaws, our system is much, much better than it.
So, yeah, I think overall it’s really hard to say from the outside, because I think one thing maybe, that we never really do generally, in these situations, is the interaction’s always kind of government-to-government, regime-to-regime. Whereas North Korea’s one of those places where I think the more we try to reach out to the people and bypass the regime, the more of an effect that would have. That’s maybe something that we’re blind to, but it’s also, this is a country that’s threatened to destroy everything around it for 60 years and hasn’t succeeded in doing anything close to that. So maybe our governments aren’t doing that badly at managing it. Again, it’s really easy to play armchair judge. Sorry, that’s a really long, round-about, all over the place answer.
No, it was a round-about question [laughter]. Thanks a lot for talking to me.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian (average at best) living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.