By Jessica Royer Ocken
When your work hits a wall, it's natural to seek new inspiration. The less natural inclination? Kidnap foreign talent and force creativity out of them at gunpoint. But leave it to movie fanatic Kim Jong Il, North Korea's dictator (and questionable patron of the arts), to prove the exception to the rule. By luring South Korea's greatest cinematic resource north using a chloroform-soaked towel, Kim ushered in North Korea's golden age of film.
Long before his father's death in 1994, Kim Jong Il played supervisor to the North Korean movie industry. As such, he made sure each production served double duty as both art form and propaganda-dispersion vehicle. Per his instructions, the nation's cinematic output consisted of films illuminating themes such as North Korea's fantastic military strength and what horrible people the Japanese are. It was the perfect job for a cinephile like Kim, whose personal movie collection reportedly features thousands of titles, including favorites "Friday the 13th," "Rambo," and anything starring Elizabeth Taylor or Sean Connery.
Despite Kim's creative influence on the industry during the 1970s (when he served with the country's Art and Culture Ministries) and the fact that he literally wrote the book on communist filmmaking (1973's On the Art of the Cinema), North Korean movies continued to stink. Frustrated, Kim sought help by forcing 11 Japanese "cultural consultants" into servitude during the late 1970s and early 1980s, only to have several die inconveniently on the job (some by their own hands). But coerced consulting can only get a film industry so far, and North Korea was still in search of its Orson Welles. Then, in 1978, respected South Korean director Shin Sang Ok suddenly found himself out of work after he angered his own country's military dictator in a spat over censorship, and Kim Jong Il saw his chance to harness Shin's artistry.
Kim promptly lured Shin's ex-wife and close friend, actress Choi Eun Hee, to Hong Kong to "discuss a potential role." Instead, she was kidnapped.
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A distraught Shin searched for Choi, but found himself similarly ambushed by Kim's minions. After some "convincing"—by way of some chloroform and a rag—he was whisked away to North Korea. Choi lived in one of Kim's palaces, and Shin—having been captured after an attempted escape only months after arriving—lived for four years in a prison for political dissidents, where he subsisted on grass, rice, and communist propaganda.
In February 1983, Shin and Choi were finally reunited at a dinner party. With little fanfare, Kim commanded them to hug and "suggested" the couple remarry (which they did). Then, they were confronted with their new moviemaking duties—namely, to infuse some life into North Korean cinema and promote government ideals.
For the next several years, Shin and Choi were given access to state-of-the-art equipment, but were saddled with constant supervision. Kim demanded their films lure viewers outside North Korea, but refused to allow the couple any flexibility to nurture such nuance. Instead, Kim encouraged them with an annual salary of millions. Shin later confessed to moments of complacency in his new lavish lifestyle, but he and Choi were less than enthusiastic about their new home, and ultimately, monetary compensation couldn't overcome their hatred for communism.
Despite Shin's internal turmoil (or perhaps because of it), the director does have a few standouts from this phase in his career. Among them is "Pulgasari," a Godzilla-esque film some suspect was meant as a slam to the cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong Il's father as well as a veiled depiction of Shin's feelings about his egomaniacal taskmaster. Fortunately, Kim loved it, largely because he interpreted the flick as an outright critique of capitalism.
Even from beneath a pile of accolades and money, Shin and Choi couldn't stop dreaming of escape. In fact, their "Dear Leader" was building them a mansion and a Hollywood-worthy movie set when the couple went to Vienna to negotiate film distribution rights in 1986. There, Shin and Choi eluded their bodyguards, fled to the American embassy, and pled for asylum. Discussions they'd secretly taped with their executive producer were used as proof that they hadn't gone to North Korea for fame and fortune (as they'd been forced to claim during press conferences), and they were allowed to return home to South Korea.
Shin passed away on April 11, 2006, at the age of 79, and today, Kim Jong Il is back to relying on homegrown talent. He still cranks out 60 movies a year, but has yet to achieve his dream of winning an international audience. Regardless, a sign outside the country's Ministry of Culture reads, "Make More Cartoons"—proof that Kim Jong Il continues to impart his wisdom, and influence, on North Korean filmmakers.
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