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'A Kim Jong-Il Production': North Korea at the movies

Future North Korean leader Kim Jong-il advises a

Future North Korean leader Kim Jong-il advises a film shoot in 1979. Photo Credit: AP / Anonymous

A KIM JONG-IL PRODUCTION: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power, by Paul Fischer. Flatiron Books, 353 pp., $27.99.

In 1978, South Korea's most famous movie director and most beloved actress, recently divorced from each other, were abducted by operatives of Kim Jong-il, who was then a few years away from succeeding his father as North Korea's leader. Kim wanted to make North Korea's film industry a world-renowned operation, an agitprop empire, and he thought these snatched artists could realize his dream.

Eight years later -- having made a handful of films worthy of international acclaim and one so awful that it would become a midnight-movie favorite -- they escaped.

It sounds preposterous. And yet the tale told by Paul Fischer in "A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power" is all true. Fischer's chronicle is a thriller, with daring getaways, double-crosses and a despotic villain; a love story, in which the kidnapped artists' romance is rekindled in the most unlikely circumstances; and a fascinating portrait of Kim, a pint-size tyrant whose charisma and showmanship impress even his captives.

And, of course, it arrives with remarkable timing, on the heels of North Korea's outrage over "The Interview" -- the junky Hollywood comedy in which the country's current leader, Kim's son Kim Jong-Un, is the subject of an assassination attempt by bumbling Americans.

In the 1960s, actress Choi Eun-Hee and director Shin Sang-Ok were South Korea's most glamorous couple. Fischer, a film producer and first-time author, describes Shin as an ambitious and inventive filmmaker who could work in any genre. Choi -- kind, talented and beautiful -- had achieved fame after agonizing experiences during the Korean War.

Shin's talents made him an idol to Kim, who in the early '60s was a young playboy and voracious cinephile. Kim required North Korean embassies around the world to borrow prints of new movies and secretly copy them. "Every acquirable new release was obtained," Fischer writes, "from Hollywood movies to Japanese gangster epics, comedies, and soft-core erotica."

In Pyongyang the films were dubbed into Korean by professional actors, all for Kim's personal pleasure. The James Bond movies were among his favorites.

By the mid '70s, Kim wanted a way to dazzle the world, impress his father and keep his subjects devoted. In 1977, at a time when North Korea was routinely kidnapping people in places as distant as London and Copenhagen, he hatched his plan. "Since he couldn't change his people's reality," Fischer writes, "Jong-il elected to change their perception of it."

The basic facts of the story aren't news. Many of the book's details come from memoirs and articles by Choi and Shin, bolstered by dozens of interviews Fischer conducted with North Korean defectors and people directly involved. What Fischer does best is provide context, offering a full history of North Korea and the ongoing misery of its citizens. He deftly keeps the strands of his story entwined.

The account of Choi and Shin's captivity is gripping and heartbreaking. They were taken and held separately for five years of "re-education" before being reunited. Awed by his "guests" and convinced of their allegiance, Kim turned his film industry over to them in 1983.

In one of the book's many ironies, Shin finally got what he'd always wanted as a filmmaker: creative freedom. The films he and Choi made -- developed in story conferences with Kim -- were intended to reinvigorate national pride, but they were also subversive in ways that Kim seemed not to notice. "In the words of one North Korean defector," Fischer writes, they "clearly hinted at 'different things' than Kim Jong-il had so far allowed: sex, sensuality, action, fun." (The awful film "Pulgasari" was a "Godzilla" rip-off for which Kim shanghaied a Japanese production crew.)

There are some editorial missteps: repetition; heavy-handed section epigraphs featuring American movie dialogue; a sentimental epilogue describing the present-day Choi, now in her 80s. But overall the book is riveting. (Shin died in 2006, after creating the "3 Ninjas" franchise for Disney and serving on the Cannes Film Festival jury in 1994.)

The book's abundant humor is a testament to the resilience of the kidnapped South Koreans and to Fischer's wit. "Shin and Choi had both met men like Kim Jong-il, on a smaller scale," he writes. "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."

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