When last we heard from the isolated nation of North Korea, its best computer minds had been accused of sabotaging Sony Pictures over the satirical film “The Interview.” Prior to that, the supreme leader Kim Jong-Un was hosting the eccentric ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman and, oh yes, threatening a nuclear attack on the United States.
The news that trickles in from North Korea would be manifestly absurd if it weren’t occasionally terrifying. For decades, what little we’ve known about the secretive country — presided over from 1948 to 1994 by Kim’s grandfather, “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung, and from 1994 to 2011 by Kim’s father, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il — has been supplied by a series of set pieces and staged productions. One of the strangest episodes in North Korea’s recent history, puzzled together in an entertaining new book by first-time author and film producer Paul Fischer, involved the abduction of two of South Korea’s biggest cinema stars.
Choi Eun-Hee was South Korea’s silver-screen sweetheart, the star of “A Flower in Hell” (1958) and other acclaimed films directed by her husband, Shin Sang-Ok. There exists a photo of Choi with Marilyn Monroe (on a post-Korean War goodwill tour), looking every bit as alluring as her American counterpart.
By 1978, though, the power couple’s careers were in decline and so was their marriage. In one of the oddest twists of the Cold War, Kim Jong-Il restored both for the couple when he ordered their kidnappings.
Twice Shin tried to escape, leading to grueling stints in North Korea’s notorious prison system. Reunited with Choi, he realized his only hope would be to pledge allegiance, however disingenuously, to the Dear Leader. Kim, who served as cultural arts director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department under his father, was obsessive about the cinema, ordering government officials to watch films with him late into the night after his lavish parties had died down.
Unlike his guests, Kim didn’t sing, dance, or cavort with the “satisfaction” girls at the parties, Fischer writes: “He preferred to sit, drink, smoke his Rothman Royals, and direct.” He conducted the band, urged gamblers to up the ante, and forced Politburo members to dance with the working girls.
For years Kim’s name was the only one to appear on the films of North Korea’s state-run movie industry. Some of them, such as “The Flower Girl” and “Sea of Blood” — based on two of the country’s five revolutionary operas — were considered masterpieces, at least north of the 38th parallel. By the late 1970s, however, Kim had grown discouraged with the narrow scope and wooden execution of North Korea’s film fables. He loved James Bond movies; he wanted his country to produce more stylish films.
For a time, Shin and Choi gave the dictator just what he was looking for. Traveling the globe with a sizable budget and a team of minders, they shot several films, some more sophisticated than others. One was based on a historical incident of Korean resistance to Japan; another was a “glorious failure” of a monster movie. Some critics interpreted that one as an allegory of the triumph of the collective over capitalism; others saw it as Shin’s veiled criticism of a populist leader run amok.
The details of how the filmmakers finally seized their chance to seek asylum make “A Kim Jong-Il Production” a stupefying, novelistic read. The author based his research on Choi and Shin’s own testimony and writings, as well as the accounts, firsthand and otherwise, of various North Korean defectors. The saga draws a vivid portrait of a regime marked by spectacle, oppression, and a heaping helping of farce.
At times Fischer’s language veers perilously close to the melodrama that, admittedly, comes naturally to his story. After Choi confronts her husband’s secret lover, for instance, she goes home and “crie[s] more than she had ever thought she could.”
But he’s also exceptionally perceptive. Kim swung wildly between cloying hospitality and unhinged anger, “which could cost you your job or your life,’’ he writes.
In the end, Fischer observes, “Shin and Choi had both met men like Kim Jong-Il, on a smaller scale: talented but not quite talented enough, powerful, jealous, insecure, and boastful; with an overinflated sense of their own importance in the world, a short temper, and an obsessive need to micromanage. Kim was, they thought, the archetypal film producer.”