Jasper Sharp reviews a book on the maddest film producer of all
Cinema is regularly used as an entry point for discussions about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea to the rest of us), as the recent scandal that erupted around The Interview
at the tail end of last year highlights. That film, which centred around a pair of bumbling journalists and their attempts to assassinate Kim Jong-Un, the current Supreme Leader of the world’s most secretive state, provided a timely reminder that much of what we know about the country comes mediated through a screen.
From its founding father Kim Il-Sung onwards, North Korea’s dynastic lineage of heads of state have often appeared to the rest of the world as Hollywood-style constructs, framed for a global audience as scheming manifestations of evil incarnate as eccentric and larger-than-life as any Bond villain and poised to bring down the whole of Western civilisation. None more so than Kim Il-Sung’s diminutive, bouffant-haired heir apparent Kim Jong-Il (one of the most memorable aspects of Trey Parker’s 2004 puppet-animated political satire Team America: World Police
), its despotic ruler from 1994 until his death in 2011.
It seems oddly fitting, then, that there has been no single figure in history who has played such a hands-on role in guiding his national cinema as Kim Jong-Il, and that the Dear Leader’s official biography, relentlessly drilled into his subjects by the propaganda apparatus he actively oversaw, is a piece of imaginative myth-making as bombastic and far-fetched as anything conjured up by the American dream factory.
A self-styled cinephile (albeit one whose favourite films were Friday 13th
and, somewhat ironically, the James Bond films), he quite literally wrote the book as far as North Korea’s state-run industry is concerned, with his On the Art of the Cinema
appearing in 1973. While North Korean films contained no credits, so as to emphasize the collective nature of filmmaking in the Workers’ Paradise, the myth circulated from above was that it was Kim Jong-Il himself who was the guiding hand behind every stage of the production process.
Throughout his life, Kim Jong-Il took it upon himself to make close studies of Hollywood films, as well as those of other countries, hoarding literally thousands of 35mm prints acquired through a global bootlegging racket of immense proportions.
If our vision of what goes on in the Hermit State feels like gazing into a particularly murky fishbowl, it should be also remembered that it was cinema that provided the Dear Leader with his sole window onto the world. Aside from his birth in a Soviet camp in 1941, as Yurei Ilsenovitch Kim – an inconvenient fact doctored in the official state-propagated narrative, which instead eulogises his arrival into this world in a simple log cabin on the snow-covered slopes of the hallowed Mount Paekdu – his terror of flying meant that Kim Jong-Il barely ever travelled abroad.
Meanwhile, citizens were exclusively restricted to a stolid diet of North Korean movies on fear of death, exhibited by mobile film groups in factories, schools and other public spaces, followed by arduous post-screening education sessions, and then later on television. The prime purpose of these was to instil in viewers the country’s home-grown philosophy of juche
(an extreme form of racial nationalism with little basis in traditional communist ideology), as well as to exalt the divine status of the regime’s leaders and the nation’s founding father Kim Il-Sung. These similarly presented a distorted picture of the rest of the world – whereas the sun always shone in North Korea, the hostile enemy nations of South Korea and Japan, the former coloniser of the Korean peninsula from 1910-45, were always portrayed in rain and often at night.
The main impediment in this use of cinema as a propaganda tool was that, aside from a few standout titles such as Sea of Blood
(1968 - pictured) and The Flower Girl
(1972), North Korean films were simply not very good, as Kim Jong-Il himself readily acknowledged (indeed, he was the only person in the country allowed to do so).
And so, in 1978, Kim hatched an elaborate plan to kidnap South Korea’s most successful filmmaker, Shin Sang-Ok, along with Choi Eun-hee, the director’s ex-wife and the most celebrated actress south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and put them to work transforming his film industry into the envy of the world.
Paul Fischer’s hugely entertaining book, A Kim Jong-Il Production
, is the story of two men who lived, ate and breathed cinema, the actress who brought them together and the monster they created together – the Godzilla
(1985), the last of seven features Shin and Choi made in the DPRK in a period of just three years.
It is a fascinating and compelling narrative, largely due to the sheer hubristic bloody-mindedness of the personalities at its core. There’s a delicious symmetry between its two leading men: Kim, the despotic head of a state that he created as “one vast stage production… He was the writer, director and producer of the nation”, and Shin, described by a contemporary as a man who “would have jumped down to hell if he had to in order to make movies… his loyalty was only to film, not to any politician or ideology.” Both had also fathered children after affairs with actresses; Shin rather more publically than Kim, resulting in the scandal that had led to his initial separation from Choi.
Nevertheless, it was Kim who stage-managed the estranged couple’s reunion with great propagandistic fanfare for all the world to see, claiming they had both willingly defected to the DPKR. And it was Kim who provided the means for Shin to recommence a one-time meteoric filmmaking career that had been abruptly brought to a halt after falling foul of South
Korea’s government censors. One doubts, however, that abduction and years in solitary confinement would have been the manner that Shin would have wished for his re-entry into the international filmmaking community.
Fischer sensibly never lets the brutal callousness of the regime and the darker side of reality of life in the DPRK get lost in the absurdity of this bizarre real-life case. There’s a whole chapter devoted to the tragic career trajectory of the actress Woo In-Hee. At one time one of North Korean cinema’s most popular faces, her fall from grace was swift and merciless, ending in a very public execution and all traces of her former stardom snipped from the films she’d originally made such an impact in.
While a huge amount of research has clearly gone into the work, with the main narrative derived, somewhat uncritically, from Shin and Choi’s own memoirs, this is in no way an academic book, with no footnotes, nor even an index, although an exhaustive list of sources is provided in the end matter. Fischer draws, among others, upon Johannes Schonherr’s North Korean Cinema: A History
, published in 2012, which is the best place to look for a more rigorous account of DPRK filmmaking. A degree of creative license has been taken in packaging the story accessibly for a wider audience, with imagined dialogue appearing as reported speech in quotes, the inner thoughts of its main characters detailed at crucial points in the “plot” hatched by Kim, and individual scenes described in incredibly vivid detail.
I mention this more as an observation than a criticism, because at the end of the day, A Kim Jong-Il Production
is riveting, page-turning stuff, chock-full of rich detail about the history, politics and cinema of both North and South Korea within a narrative of deception and double bluffs in which torture and potential death are just a paragraph away. One can easily imagine it as the source material for an incredibly entertaining film in its own right.
Perhaps my only gripe is Fischer’s damning appraisal of Pulgasari
, the movie monster who appears alongside our main protagonists in the book’s vibrant cover art by Graham Humphreys. Undoubtedly the most widely seen North Korean film ever made, not to mention the most expensive, Fischer dismisses it in the same sentence as Plan 9 From Outer Space
as a “so-bad-its-good-cult movie” and as “long, leaden and dreadful.” Perhaps the most surprising thing about the fruits of Kim, Shin and Choi’s unholy trinity, now disowned by the North Koreans, is that it is really not that bad!
A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of North Korea and the Most Audacious Kidnapping in History, by Paul Fischer, is published by Viking.