News out of North Korea, when it comes at all, generally follows one of three storylines. In the first, it fires a missile that comes down far off course. In the second, the regime threatens the West with annihilation. And in the third, that regime does something so brazenly totalitarian that Caligula would gasp in admiration. Most recently, for example, it issued a decree that no one can be called Jong-un except the reigning boss or Jong-il or Il-sung except his immediate, deceased forebears, forcing countless North Korean men to change their names.
Kim Jong-un may run a Ruritanian paradise of big-hatted generals and starving peasants, but he had nothing on his dad, who, among other spectacular misdeeds, engineered the kidnapping of a famed South Korean film director and his leading actress in order to launch a modern North Korean film industry—for when Kim Jong-il wasn’t busy rattling his saber, he was obsessively pondering how to become the next Cecil B. De Mille.
That unlikely story is the basis of Paul Fischer’s new book A Kim Jong-il Production, a portrait of a dictator unhinged that raises as many questions as it answers—not least the troubling one of how millions of people could go hungry for years while their leader dropped a million dollars a year on cognac and spent millions more building one of the largest private film libraries the world has ever known. Kim Jong-il may have been a laughingstock for his Eraserhead hairstyle and odd pronouncements, but he was deadly serious about his film addiction, which was comprehensive and scholarly. He was also serious about wanting to turn his country into a cinematic powerhouse, and he built sound stages and film labs as good as any in Hollywood in that pursuit.
Think of the kidnapping episode as a Monty Python film directed by Werner Herzog. So suggests Fischer, himself a filmmaker (Radioman) who talked with Kirkus about his book between flights on the way to his next shoot. The story of actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok’s 1978 sequestration, he recalls, was one that he’d read about in passing when it happened. He’d assumed that Shin had been held for a few days, pumped for information, and then freed after Choi had done a few scenes before the camera, and so he was surprised to find that the two had remained captive for more than eight years.
Tantalized by the real facts of the case, Fischer thought he’d read a little more about it on his next plane trip. “I went to Amazon and looked for a book about it, and there wasn’t one. And I think I knew right away—I’m writing this book. I suddenly felt panicked that someone else might beat me to it. I went home and kept Googling and Googling, and within a month, I had a Korean translator, had tracked down and spoken to Madame Choi, and had written a proposal and sent it out to agents.”
The story he turns up in A Kim Jong-Il Production has all the twists and turns of a good ‘60s spy thriller. Shin and Choi were a package deal, and well chosen: Choi’s star was fading, and Shin had been having difficulties of his own with the military government that effectively ran South Korea in the late 1970s. He must have been tempted by the prospect of having a vast studio at his command, and she must have been tempted at the thought of enduring fame and constant work.
The realities were different. Kim was used to calling the shots, and when a dictator sends notes on rushes, the wise director listens closely. Kim appointed himself executive producer on many of Shin’s films, and those notes were constant. Moreover, for a director with artistic aspirations, the slate of films Kim chose were problematic; it’s anyone’s guess whether Shin would have made a Godzilla knockoff otherwise, and yet there it is on his résumé.
Shin’s career as North Korea’s leading filmmaker was checkered. “Pulgasari is a great bad film,” Fischer says, diplomatically, while Hong Kil-Dong “is a very enjoyable Shaw Brothers–style action film.” And then there’s Salt, which earned Choi best actress honors at the Moscow Film Festival in 1985. “But that’s really it, from half a century of filmmaking.”
In 1986, Shin and Choi escaped in an episode less worthy of John Le Carré than Blake Edwards. Predictably, Kim blamed their defection on American intervention, and indeed Shin turned up next in Hollywood, where he made a few forgettable ninja films before returning to South Korea. He died in 2006 while planning a musical based on the life of Genghis Khan, a project that conjures up images of—well, Monty Python as directed by Werner Herzog.
The moviemaking empire Kim founded chugs along, though much less ambitiously than in the dictator’s heyday. “North Korea’s cinematic ambitions seem to have died with the Dear Leader,” Fischer says. “Kim Jong-Un is said to love movies, but in the same way he loves basketball—he’s a fan, not someone who wants to participate. These days the North Korean film industry is much smaller-scale, and more about cartoons, mostly for a domestic audience. They’re cheaper to make than live-action pictures, they keep the graduates of the state’s fine arts schools employed, and cartoons make for good propaganda aimed at kids.”
Think of that the next time you tune into Looney Tunes. Meanwhile, Fischer is back to working on films while making notes for another book. “I can’t wait to talk to people about A Kim Jong-Il Production,” he says. “I feel like writing it was my half of the conversation, and now I can’t wait to see what the conversation becomes.” As long as that conversation doesn’t take place in an interrogation room under Pyongyang, that is….Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.