North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il may long remain an enigma wrapped in a zip-suit. But there was one blaring passion on the khaki sleeve. He loved films. A fan of Hong Kong action, horror, James Bond, Elizabeth Taylor – he also authored On the Art of the Cinema and, in the late seventies, became a producer.
In fact, he fast-tracked his career quicker than most Hollywood hotshots – by kidnapping famous South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife, movie star Choi Eun-hee, keeping them under lock and key until they helped him make movies. Most notably Pulgasari, a socialist remake of Godzilla.
Relationships got off to a rocky start. Shin says that shortly after arriving in Pyongyang he made several attempts to escape, only to end up with four years at Prison No 6. “Tasting bile all the time,” he wrote. “I experienced the limits of human beings.”
Shin endured four years in the all-male prison – wondering whether his ex-wife was dead – while being fed a diet of grass, salt, rice and Party dogma. When he was finally released in 1983 Kim apologised for the unfriendly welcome, blaming a misunderstandings by officials. He also made a personal apology for taking so long to get back to them, explaining it had been busy at the office.
In the 70s Kim had created the Mount Paeku Creative Group studio – designed to illuminate global cinema aisles with the light of the Korea Workers’ Party. But, possibly under the threat of exile or death, Kim’s creative team faced a communal creative block.
“The North’s film-makers are just doing perfunctory work” he later confided. “They don’t have any new ideas. Their works have the same expressions, redundancies, the same old plots. All our movies are filled with crying and sobbing. I didn’t order them to portray that kind of thing.”
By 1978 Kim Jong-il was firmly disenchanted. But a solution soon presented itself.
South Korean director Shin Sang-ok, widely regarded as the Orson Welles of the peninsula, had modernised movies when people needed them most. In the wake of the Korean war he make at least 60 movies in 20 years. He and his wife, the well-known actress Choi Eun-hee, were well placed amongst Seoul’s celebrity set.
But in 1978 Shin clashed with the repressive government of General Park Chung Hee. His studio was closed. Kim grabbed the opportunity and lured the two to Repulse Bay in Hong Kong on a bogus business trip. Choi was the first to disappear after heading over to discuss an acting job. Concerned, Shin followed her trail – only to be wrapped in plastic, with a chloroform-soaked sack over the head on his way home from dinner.
And now, having now recruited the best film talent available for the venture, it was time to get down to work. Kim and his expanded company were going to workshop some ideas. “Kim Jong-il was like any ordinary young man.” Shin San-Ok told the BBC in 2003. ”He liked action movies, sex movies, horror movies”. When it came to casting around for subject matter, Shin says there were “fewer restrictions than is commonly believed”.
“He listened to me because we were from South Korea,” Shin also told The Guardian in 2003. “Even though we criticised some things, he wanted us to be honest. Others would have been killed for speaking so honestly”.
But all ideas had to be approved by Kim Jong-il as facets of his ideology. In his book On the Art of Cinema Kim compares actors and directors to generals who must master their craft. Kim’s book also suggests that film-makers avoid unrealistic movies about “the colourful lives of flamboyant characters. In the final analysis, a director who pins his hopes on finding a ‘suitable actor’ is taking a gamble in his creative work. And no director who relies on luck in creative work has ever achieved real success.”
Shin soon saw his career resurrected in a way he had never imagined.
Leaving the grass and water behind, Shin was soon promoted with an annual pay cheque of $3m for personal or professional use. He was also mixing in cognac with the higher ranks of the North Korea’s social set.
“Shall we make Mr Shin one of our regular guests?” Kim suggested at a birthday party for one of his generals. Military men meanwhile fawned over the despot-to-be and young women screamed: “Long live the great leader!”. In an exceptionally rare moment of candour, Kim said: “Mr Shin, all that is bogus. It’s just pretense.”
Shin was trusted enough to fly to east Berlin for location shots – shadowed by escorts. He rejected his wife’s suggestion of doing a runner, telling her an escape required planning. Meanwhile, to his own surprise, he found was busy planning the course of his new career.
Within the new creative parameters, Shin’s work began to flourish. In 1984 he was able to produce what he regarded as his finest film, Runaway – the story of a wandering Korean family of 1920s Manchuria dealing with Japanese oppression.
But this story is more known for spawning Pulgasari; Kim Jong-il’s C grade monster-movie masterpiece. Based on a legend of the 14th-century Koryo monarchy, Pulgasari probably owes most to Godzilla. Shin invited some monster-movie veterans from Japan’s legendary Toho Studio to his own – which now held 700 employees – to help with the movie after Kim guaranteed their safety. The troupe included Kenpachiro Satsuma, the second actor to wear the Godzilla suit; now rubber-bound as the lumbering Pulgasari.
Starting out as a dot of rice, Pulgasari becomes a monster of the people. While farmers starve under the king’s rule, the hapless creature comes to life, eats iron, grows, rolls through the countryside unfurling his wrath – past endless scenic shots of the people’s folk dances (as decreed in the guidelines of On the Art of the Cinema) and on to explosive ruin. Pulgasari has since taken a seat on the high right-hand of awful suitified monster movies.
But Kim liked it. In fact, he saw it as a victory. He ordered truckloads of pheasant, deer, wild geese for the movie crew to feast on. Plans were made for a joint venture with a company in Austria to distribute the film. Kim trusted the director to travel to western Europe for a business meeting.
He shouldn’t have.
Shin and his wife decided to strike the iron while it was hot. Ducking into a US embassy, Shin pulled stumps on his NK production company for good. “To be in Korea living a good life ourselves and enjoying movies while everyone else was not free was not happiness, but agony,” he wrote. It was a shame. The next project was inspired by John Wayne’s appearance as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. Both Shin and Kim had long wanted to make an ‘authentic’ version – they both shared enthusiasm on the subject of invading hordes.
After the embarrassing escape of his star colleagues, Kim Jong-il shelved Pulgasari along with every other Shin film, humbly retiring into the role of despot. He never again appeared on a movie credit as Producer.
Shin’s work with Kim yielded seven films. He even introduced the first kiss to North Korean cinema. Pulgasari meanwhile was not seen outside the country until 1998 – during a short and cautiously optimistic moment of openness in the North. The film bombed.
In 2001 Shin Sang-ok planned to screen his favourite work, Runaway, at the Pusan International film festival. Seoul halted the showing, banning any screening that could benefit the North. But, happily, there was one successful instance of reunification. During their stay in Pyongyang Shin and Choi re-married – at Kim Jong-il’s recommendation.