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?