The Director, the Actress, the Dictator, and the Monster who was Hungry for Iron
August 5, 2010 1:08 PM   Subscribe

Shin Sang-ok (1926 - 2006) was a Korean movie writer, director and producer, who studied film in Japan and returned to South Korea, where he gained fame and became the uncontested leader of the film industry in the 1960s, in a time when regulations on the industry limited other studios. In the 1970s under the Fourth Republic of South Korea, the film industry was even further limited, which lead to Shin's studio being closed. Things went from bad to worse, when "the Orson Welles of South Korea" was kidnapped by request of Kim Jong Il, the son of North Korea's dictator, Kim Il Sung. The reason? Kim Jong Il wanted the nation's film industry to promote the virtues of the Korea Workers' Party to a world-wide audience. After being imprisoned for four years, Shin was reunited with his ex-wife (who was also a captive of North Korea) and the given relative freedom, producing seven films in North Korea. While setting up a distribution deal to share Kim Jong Il's vision with a broader audience for a Godzilla-like monster movie, Shin and his wife escaped and sought political asylum in the United States. Their freedom was possible because of that last film for Kim, entitled Pulgasari. But Shin's life in movies was not over yet.

Shin Sang-ok was born in the northeastern part of the Korean Peninsula, when Korea was under Japanese rule. Shin went on to study at the Tokyo Fine Arts School. His first artistic undertakings were paintings in Western styles, which Sing likened to Western painting to film, because "[in Western paintings] you have close-ups, deep fields -- Eastern painting is more 'faded' as we say. So I think that as a painter I already had a film director's vocation," though he went on to note that he incorporated the emptiness of Eastern paintings into his films, "working on symmetry and dissymmetry."

Shin was the assistant production designer for the first Korean film made post-occupation entitled Viva Freedom! in 1946. Shin brought synchronized sound, Cinemascope, and the zoom lens to South Korea and made at least two films per year in the 1950s and 60s, becoming known as the prince of Korean cinema. His film company, Shin Studios, produced some 300 movies in the 1960s. Shin won the Best Picture category of the prestegious national Grand Bell Awards four of the first seven years the award was given. His style is one of formal precision, making use of landscapes to counter human constructs, and he had a "dependence on female characters and [a] thematic concern for the plight of women in Korean social history" that was unique for the time. In another bold moment in film, Shin is often credited as presenting the first Korean on-screen kiss in Flowers in Hell (1958), but this credit was claimed four years earlier, by the film The Hand of Destiny (Unmyeong-ui son).

Though Shin and his films flourished in the 1960s, it was a harsh time for cinema in South Korea, due to the Motion Picture Law that went into effect in January 1962. These new regulations limited the total number of Korean film companies to 16 (down from 71), required films to be commercial by design and ordered companies to produce at least 15 films per year, amongst other regulations. The requirements became more harsh in the mid- to late-70s, and Shin's studio lost it's license in 1975, in a time when most of the remaining companies went bankrupt.

To the north, Kim Il-sung ruled North Korea, and his son was tasked with creating a national cinema that embodied the spirit of the people's revolution. In 1973, Kim Jong-Il wrote a 330 page book entitled On the Art of the Cinema. The younger Kim was not pleased with the efforts of Mt. Paektu Creative Group, the North Korean company charged with film production, and saw the turn of events culminate in 1978 as a chance for North Korea to nab Shin and his former wife, actress Choi Eun-hee (also spelled Choi Eun-hie or Eun-hiu). There are differing stories of the abduction, one telling of North Korean agents who posed as film agents or producers to lure the low-on-luck Shin and his ex-wife to a meeting at the Repulse Bay hotel where the couple was kidnapped together. Another version is that the couple were captured individually days apart, or Choi was abducted first and Shin went in search of Choi, and was captured six months later.

However it happened, the Shin and Choi were separately held captive for years. At one point, Shin attempted to starve himself to death. When officials force-fed him through a funnel, a guard told Mr Shin that he was the first attempted suicide he'd ever seen saved, so he must be very important. Shin and Choi didn't know the other had been captured and were alive in captivity in North Korea until October 19, 1983, when Kim Jong Il brought the couple into his office to talk about his reason for bringing them together in North Korea. Choi Eun-hee smuggled in a small tape recorder and captured a "tirade-like monologue" that lasted more than two hours (source: PDF / Google Quick View). Younger Kim then threw the reunited couple a party, complete with live bands. His goal: improve the country's films while maintaining control over the North Korean people. He was limited in destinations for educating his film makers (East Germany to study editing, Czechoslovakia to study Camera technology, and the Soviet Union to learn directing), as the rest of the nations with advanced film technologies and methodologies were enemy states. With these limitations, he had no choice but to bring the shining stars of South Korean cinema to his country, strongly suggest that they re-marry and start making some good films for North Korea.

To this end, the younger Kim gave the couple access to his heavily guarded film archive, home to 15,000 copies of films and 250 employees including voice actors, translators, subtitle specialists, projectionists, and recording specialists, all serving the film maker, critic and fanatical collector that was Kim, and the few people he allowed to visit the archive. Kim gave them millions a year for professional or personal use, access to state-of-the-art technology, even allowing Shin to blow up a train for a more realistic movie, within days of making the request ("This is only possible in North Korea. It's the first time I experienced a film shoot so spectacular." -- Shin), with constant supervision to ensure that Shin and Choi wouldn't wander too far off. In total, Shin advised on the production of 13 movies and directed seven during his time in North Korea. Shin even counted one of his films from North Korea amongst the highlights of his career. Runaway is considered to be his best film of the seven he direct in North Korea, if not his whole career.

The last film that Shin Sang-ok directed for Kim Jong Il was a movie entitled Pulgasari, which on the surface may seem like kitchy communist version Godzilla, but is in fact based on Korean tradition of a little creature made of rice that devours all the metal in the world. The movie adaptation featured a literal army of North Korean soldiers and members of the kaiju factory that was Toho Studio, including special effects master Teruyoshi Nakano and the newest man in the Godzilla suit, Kenpachiro Satsuma. In the efforts to distribute the movie to a broader audience (or maybe to set the stage for filming a movie about Genghis Khan in Budapest), Kim Jong Il allowed Shin and Choi to travel to Europe, with the usual entourage of North Korean overseers. While in Vienna, Austria, the couple were able to elude their keepers in a taxi chase, ending with Shin and Choi seeking refuge in a US Embassy. The were in the United States in 1986, where they shared the conversation with Kim (that Choi recorded years earlier) to verify their story of being captive and to provide the US government some insight into Kim's domain. North Korean officials continued to say that the couple went north of their own free will, and in North Korea, officials issued contradictory statements. One declared that they were thieves whose only goal was to embezzle North Korean funds. The other brought the incident full circle, insisting that the couple had been "kidnapped by the South Koreans and the Americans."

While in the United States, Shin used the pseudonym Simon S. Sheen, and he lived in Southern California for some while. Under his newly assumed name, he worked on the three 3 Ninjas sequels, the last of which featured Hulk Hogan. Shin, as Sheen, also wrote a new version of the Pulgasari story, The Legend (or Adventures) of Galgameth (YT, also on Hulu), which was in the same kid-friendly zone of the 3 Ninjas films, unlike the original Pulgasari. Shin returned to Seoul in 2002, where he started a film center to assist film directors in South Korea, and was named an honorary professor at Sungkyul University where he spent time teaching. Shin Sang-ok died in 2006, survived by his wife, actress Choi Un-hee, two sons and two daughters, and a legacy of film. His funeral was attended by numerous stars and fans, and he was posthumously awarded the Geum-gwan (Gold Crown) Medal, the highest order of Cultural Merit.


Choi Eun-hee deserves her own attention and praise, independent of her husband, but details in English are sparse. Prior to being in movies, Choi was in a theater troupe, abducted by North Korean troops to perform in propaganda plays, escaping only to perform propaganda for South Korea. She left an abusive husband and false rumors of infidelity behind and married a rising director, Shin Sang-ok, and became his muse. Choi was not always in front of the camera, as she became Korea's third female director and head of a film academy. Life was not good to her in the 1970s, culminating in her kidnap by North Korean agents.

The movie of Pulgasari made by Shin and company in North Korea was not the first film adaptation of the little rice-creature with a never-ending appetite for metal. The first known film came out in 1962, known as Bulgasari, but little information is available on this version. To add to the confusion, the 1985 movie Pulgasari is also listed as Bulgasari. The 1985 film was released by ADV in 2001 on VHS, after years of bootleg copies floating around. Unfortunately, the movie is back into obscurity, were it not for Google Video and the internet at large. (See also: Pulgasari, previously.)

If you can't get a copy of On the Art of Cinema or don't have the chance to visit Kim Jong Il's movie museum in North Korea (with a heavy emphasis on the works of Kim), you can check out the shorter, newer volume by Kim entitled The Cinema and Directing (PDF, 83 pgs, 1987), courtesy of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
posted by filthy light thief (14 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
Holy crap, that's a lot of content! Well played, sir.
posted by Dark Messiah at 1:10 PM on August 5, 2010

I can't talk about it in full detail but Choi's life story rights have been recently acquired for a film about her and her husband's abduction by Kim. There's also a 50 part Korean mini-series in development.
posted by cazoo at 1:26 PM on August 5, 2010

Does 50 parts really count as a miniseries?
posted by Madamina at 1:38 PM on August 5, 2010

Great post, I wish the transcript of their conversation with Kim Jong-Il was more detailed - I can only find two paragraphs in the PDF. That PDF, by the way, is a fascinating a look at Kim Jong-Il.
posted by exhilaration at 1:44 PM on August 5, 2010

[more inside]

No kidding.

I find it fairly remarkable that Korean cinema didn't have synch sound until the 50s. I don't know much about the Korean film industry or its history (well, I guess I do now) but that's pretty surprising.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:58 PM on August 5, 2010

Great post FLT. North Korea continues to prove that reality is more surreal than anything you can imagine.
posted by doctor_negative at 2:12 PM on August 5, 2010

Wow - I'd love to know more about the 50 episode series (the movie, too, but the series sounds like it'll have the chance to get more in-depth).

Both Shin and Choi have (auto)biographies out, including coverage of the abduction and time in North Korea, but I believe they're only in Korean (and maybe Japanese).

As for the transcript: I've read that parts or all of the recording was actually broadcast in South Korea at some time, so I was hoping to find some audio clips, but no luck on that or a transcript. That PDF was the best thing I've found so far, but some of these links have snippets from Kim, though much is taken from his 1973 book.

I wanted to give this abduction story and the making of Pulgasari broader context than the snippets and short comparisons that usually reference Godzilla (but which one? There were at least 30 movies with Godzilla), and Pulgasari is no Godzilla. Dread Central had the best review that I've seen, noting that the movie is more similar to Daimajin movies, where the down-trodden pray to a giant being to save them, instead of (the original) Godzilla, who was a terrible and destructive monster. Also, it was sad to see Shin cast as "that guy who was kidnapped by North Koreans and made a cheezy monster movie for Kim Jong Il," like Sir Alec Guinness is known far and wide as "Old Ben" Kenobi, not as a Shakespearean actor who transitioned into film.

I find it fairly remarkable that Korean cinema didn't have synch sound until the 50s.

That bit of information was linked hastily. I grabbed the whole clip and went with it, without checking what sort of synchronized sound he brought to Korea. The first Korean "Talkie" was released in 1935, but that wasn't "advanced" synchronized sound as there was a special machine needed that few knew how to use, resulting in that film being dubbed in post-production. But Shin was tied for the first color cinemascope film, as his film and the other went to production at almost the same time. (Note: Korean Film Archive is an awesome site.)
posted by filthy light thief at 2:22 PM on August 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

This is just incredible, the Metafilter FPP as high art. If there aren't a lot of comments in this thread, it's probably because we're stunned into silence. (And busy clicking on the links.) Thanks!
posted by Kevin Street at 3:51 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

This isn't an FPP, it's an article. Thank you!

On the day that North Koreans are free to speak without reprisal, what will they say? I don't know. I cannot know.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:35 PM on August 5, 2010

Dude, get your own blog.

Just kidding, this is great.
posted by jabberjaw at 4:50 PM on August 5, 2010

There's also a 50 part Korean mini-series in development.

Yay. Korean tv series really started to fascinate me in the last couple of years, no idea what sets them apart exactly but I really love them.

This article is brilliant.
posted by shinybaum at 6:13 PM on August 5, 2010

Where were you on SLYT Saturday?
posted by wheelieman at 9:28 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Heh, I saw that, and I was working on this, and I was tempted to post an earlier draft on Saturday or Sunday, after reading some of the above-linked material. I got around to actually watching Pulgasari this weekend, and thought that simply linking to the movie was too easy. There is so much about the history that I wanted to find and share.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:52 PM on August 5, 2010

A PhD of a post. Incredible research and generous linkage. Awesomely informative and interesting. Thanks filthy light thief.
posted by nickyskye at 2:49 PM on August 9, 2010

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