A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power
Like a movie, A Kim Jong-Il Production is set in three acts. The first act Paul Fischer introduces the three primary characters; the leading lady Choi Eun-Hee, star of South Korean cinema, elegant and sophisticated member of high society, friends with international stars and President Park of South Korea. The male lead, Shin Sang-Ok, the driving force of Korean films, a prolific movie maker who loved the act of making movies more than anything. The antagonist, the young Kim Jong-Il of North Korea, third son of a dictator who loved movies and recognized the power that they had as a tool for propaganda. The second act of the book tells of how the two leads were kidnapped, and held against their will in North Korea for years. The reason? To make North Korean films better. The third act is how they have to live a life of lies in the militaristic dictatorship under the close watch of Kim Jong-Il to plot their escape back to the west.
For this book, Paul Fischer needs to introduce a lot of backstory in the first “act”, namely giving backstory to all three leads. To give the proper weight to the story, he wants you to understand the importance of Choi and Shin and their place in South Korean society. For Shin Sang-Ok the best comparison to a western directors has been Steven Spielberg, a director that is successful both artistically and financially, is known both by cinephiles and more casual viewers. People flock to see his movies. In the post Korean War era, Shin Sang-Ok was renown for making films. He produced a prodigious amount, across genres, and all of them were successful. He would continually break attendance records for every one of his new movies. Eventually Shin put his weight behind a full movie studio, Shin Film, envisioning a classic Hollywood studio from the Golden Age of movie making. Choi Eun-Hee has been likened to Elizabeth Taylor in her prime. Choi was already a successful actress before the two married, having made propaganda films for the South Korean army and then moving to commercial films after the war. She was a socialite and leading celebrity outside of acting and had aspirations for more. When they met on set, they immediately fell for each other and inspired each other. Shin would cast Choi in most of his film, she would produce many of the duo’s films as a partner in Shin Film.
The other player in the book is Kim Jong-Il. But not the dictator of the nation Kim, but a younger version. In the 1950’s and 60’s he was the son of the Great Leader Kilm Il-Sung, but seen as the least likely to succeed his father. What he had was an obsession with cinema of all forms, in house North Korean, Communist films from Soviet Russia and allied nations, and Western films that he had smuggled into North Korea. Kim Jong-Il took his love for movies and used this passion when he took over the propaganda machine of North Korea, and in doing so, established the foundations of the extensive cults of personality first around his father, and later in life himself. He also saw that movies could have a powerful role in propaganda, and literally wrote the book on North Korean film making, On the Art of the Cinema (no one else has had the audacity to publish another work on the topic since).
At the beginning of the second act of the book, Shin has been making films, but his brashness and has become an annoyance to the rest of Korean filmmakers and to the censors of the South Korean government. The main problem was he no longer had friends in high places, namely President Park, who was friends with Choi… whom Shin cheated on with a younger actress while Choi was at home teaching at her acting school and taking care of their adopted children. So his career was in free fall and he was banned from making movies in S. Korea, at this time Choi asked for a divorce.
Without Shin Film Choi couldn’t support her endeavors, so for two years Choi tried to keep her funding for her acting academy afloat. Eventually Choi went to Hong Kong to meet with a friend to try and secure more funding. While there she was led to a beach, and forcibly taken onto a motorboat by a group of North Korean commandos. She was drugged on and off for six days while being transferred to a larger cargo ship. After the six days at sea, she was greeted by her new host and the person that had ordered her kidnapping, Kim Jong-Il. He was so pleased with himself, that he brought along a photographer to document the moment. He shared a copy of the picture with Choi later.
Shin had been traveling the world, trying to get back to making movies, trying in different countries, but running into walls. While he was in New Jersey, he heard that Choi was missing. He went to Hong Kong to see what he could learn, but low on funds and friends, there wasn’t much that he could do. In a press conference Shin accused the North Korean government. While under watch on Hong Kong and conducting his own search, Shin was held up at knife point, and then taken on to a motorboat. His journey to North Korean was similar to Choi’s, but took a turn for the worse once he arrived. Kim was not there smiling and waiting with a photographer.
Choi spent the next few years under how arrest, with no contact outside of North Korea to her family or anyone outside of Kim Jong-Il’s inner circle. She would often be paraded at his late night parties and other events. She say that she “felt like a prize of Kim’s that he liked to show off”. Shin’s time in North Korea was spent rather differently. Shin tried multiple times to escape, and ended up in a prison camp, where he underwent various types of torture, both physical and psychological. After spending two years reevaluating his life, movies and his marriage Shin decided that he would try again to escape, but this time planning it so it couldn’t fail. Shin convinced his captors that he was sincere in his new found adulation of the North Korean state and would very much like to make movies for them. He was taken out of the prison camp, given new clothing and fed, trying to undo 2 years of starving in 10 days of fattening. Still sickly, he was taken to a late night party where he finally met his host. At this meeting, Kim Jong-Il also reintroduced Shin to his estranged wife Choi, whom hadn’t seen a friendly face in almost 5 years. Both were beyond surprised to see the other, and neither could trust the other. Kim was pleased beyond belief, again with his photographers to document everything. He announced that they would be having a marriage ceremony, and that Shin would be helping to make North Korean films.
The third act begins with Shin and Choi realizing that they have only one way to escape, and that’s going along and convincing everyone, from Kim Jong-Il to the rest of the world that they are in North Korea willingly, and are there to help make North Korean cinema world renowned. If they are found out, or are not convincing enough then they might be put into prison camps, if not killed immediately.
This book was a harrowing read. I had heard of the director and actress that Kim Jong-Il had kidnapped before, but the details of the book make it more interesting to read then some fiction. I had a copy sitting on the reference desk at my library and a patron saw it and asked about it. While I was describing it to other people it sounds like a thriller novel or insane drama, but given the research that has been done as well as records searches done by Fischer and others and the tape of Kim Jong-Il (one of the few in existence in the west) and corroborating testimonies from other escapees from North Korea it sounds like this is a true and accurate story. There are some genuinely great stories about Kim Jong-Il as both maniacal dictator (the methods used to obtain his personal collection of 20,000 plus movies involved diplomatic level pirates) to his passion and insanity as a director and movie producer (Shin wanted a model train to blow up, Kim delivered an actual train, packed with explosives, Shin needed some extras, Kim sent in the army). This was a really great read, part biography, part film making history and part harrowing political thriller.