Korean Culture

Book review: A Kim Jong Il Production

A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Incredible True Story of North Korea and the Most Audacious Kidnapping in History 

By Paul Fischer

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Anyone under the impression that the North Korean regime under the Kims is anti-cinema should consider the fact that kim-Jong Sil amassed an incredible library of films, some 20,000, including the Friday the 13th series and James Bond, which were his favourites.

The movie mad dictator was so enthralled with cinema that he made sure his citizens went to state-sanctioned productions once a week.

At the heart of this terrifying portrait of a madman is the scarcely believable kidnapping of the most famous South Korean actress and Director, both of whom were forced against their will to come to the North and make propaganda films for the Supreme Leader. Once in North Korea, the pair were given funding by Kim and made some of the most famous films of their career including Pulgasari.

Actress Choi Eun-Hee was held hostage and forced to act in Kim Jon-Il's propaganda films.
Actress Choi Eun-Hee was held hostage and forced to act in Kim Jong-Il’s propaganda films.

Any hard facts about the notorious regime are few and far between as the country has allowed few foreign visitors, however Paul Fischer has amassed some truly astounding facts about the Kim era dictatorship.

For example, the legendary account of the great leader’s birth in the sacred mountain known as ‘Paektu’, is revealed to be an outrageous work of fiction foisted on the North Korean people. Jong-Il was not born in Korea and his birth name was Yura. In fact, he only became Kim-Jong-Il in his twenties.

Tales of the regime’s criminal behaviour have led the family to be compared to the Corleones, and Kim Jong-Il to Tony Soprano.

Kidnappings of foreign nationals were all too common in North Korea. However the most outrageous is surely the capture of Choi Eun Hee, then the most famous actress, and her husband, Sang-ok Shin.

The success of these South Korean films must have been known to Kim Jong-Il. Most of the North Korean productions came with heavy political messages and were highly complimentary to the government. In fact the films were only a part of the relentless propaganda fed to its citizens, who have been led to believe that they live in a promised land. School children were made to destroy dolls of American soldiers, who they referred to as Yankee dogs. South Korea was known as ‘American’s Whore’. The television news reported news of riots and savage fighting in South Korea. It was said that the Chinese were starving due to having given up socialism.

Sometimes these appalling statistics can get in the way of the human drama of the captive film maker and actress.

Yet the book makes us fully aware of what living under this government must have been like. All the myths go to show the extent to which Kim went to cultivate personality cult, with himself as a self-appointed Divine Leader.

As well as being a massive movie buff with an archive collection of every South Korean film to that date) Jong-Il had written his own film text book called On the Art of Cinema, which contained such instructions as “a masterwork should be monumental not in size but in content” and he encouraged his writers and directors to favour character over plot, emphasizing “the different fates and psychology of persons … rather than the events themselves.”

In an interview with the Great leader, a microphone was secretly placed in the handbag of Choi-Eun Hee. Jong-Il discussed the sort of films they would produce, and Jong-Il stunned them by offering them $2 million US a year for a budget, clearly with the aim of gaining prestige for North Korean films at international film festivals.

It’s not spoiling the book by revealing that the couple eventually find freedom. It’s whilst on a promotional tour in Austria that they manage to break away from the regime’s clutches. What’s sad is that many in South Korea believed that the kidnapping was staged, an attempt by the director and his wife to revive their diminishing careers. Perhaps because of this, they were never entirely accepted in South Korea.

Although the book is as much about the Supreme Leader as it is about the kidnapping, it’s a powerful love story as any in the movies. The couple divorced in 1975 but reunited after the kidnapping. In many ways it was the kidnapping that brought them back together.

Shin Ok made no more films after 1986, but he made the Cannes Jury in 1994, ushering in a new era for cinema by granting the grand jury prize to Quentin Tarantino for Pulp Fiction. As for Choi Eun Hee, she received the best actress award in 1985 at the 14th Moscow Film Awards for her part in the film Sogum. 

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