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Excerpt: 'A Kim Jong-Il Production'

"A Kim Jong-Il Production" by Paul Fischer (Flatiron,

"A Kim Jong-Il Production" by Paul Fischer (Flatiron, February 2015). Credit: Flatiron

On May 16, 1962, Shin Sang-Ok was standing at the center of a party at the South Korean Presidential Residence. He was the talk of the evening -- and, in that moment, of all of Seoul.

The reception was part of the closing ceremonies of the Seventh Asia-Pacific Film Festival, an annual competition to honor and give awards to Asia's best films. Thirty-five years old and standing tall in his white tuxedo jacket, crisp white dress shirt and black slacks, Shin was the guest of honor and the subject of excited whispers among the guests. Five years earlier none of the people on the lawn had known his name. Now he was the country's hottest filmmaker, director of the biggest box-office hits of the previous two years. The critics loved him. His wife was the most beautiful and most famous actress in the nation. And tonight his new film, "The Houseguest and My Mother," had won the Best Picture award at the festival, the first South Korean film to win the top prize in an international competition.

Shin shuffled his feet restlessly in the dry grass outside the Blue House. Once the royal garden of the Joseon dynasty, whose kings had ruled the peninsula for more than 500 years, it was now the site of the presidential compound, a complex of traditional buildings with sloping blue-tiled roofs. The legendary tiles were individually baked in the sun in the old way and rumored to be strong enough to last for hundreds of years. The outskirts of the compound were, more pragmatically, protected by high walls and several checkpoints manned by units of national police and army guards. Very few outsiders were ever allowed inside the Blue House buildings. It was an honor just to stand on the grounds.

A few feet away from Shin, the photographer tinkered with his camera, getting the flash ready and the exposure levels right, as the other dignitaries arranged themselves in a line around Shin for the photo. There would be seven people in the photograph, but the real focus was on the three standing at the center: Shin; his wife of nine years, Choi Eun-Hee; and, between them, South Korea's new president, General Park Chung-Hee.

President Park was 44 years old, short, with shrewd, hooded dark eyes and large jug ears. He had taken power in a military coup exactly a year earlier, on May 16, 1961. Prior to that he, too, had been largely unknown to the guests mingling on what was now his front lawn, a second-rank general with a commendable military record and no political experience. But he had great ambitions for the country that he loved and that he had watched descend, over the 15 years since its partition, into poverty, corruption and chaos. He had grown up in the countryside in the very south, surrounded by simple, patriotic folk who wanted a government as disciplined and hardworking as they were. Once in office, his first act had been to arrest dozens of corrupt officials and businessmen and parade them through the streets of Seoul, with sandwich boards slung around their necks that proclaimed I AM A CORRUPT PIG! The move had won him the immediate adoration of the masses, as had his announcement of a new constitution to be ratified later in 1962, followed by presidential elections in 1963. He had been making many appearances like this one, raising his public profile and introducing himself to the key industries, cinema among them, that he planned to use to change South Korea's image in the world. In most people's minds South Korea was a sad, aid-dependent Third World country with little to offer the wider world, but today's award suggested much brighter possibilities. Accordingly, earlier that day, at the Seoul Civic Center, it had been Park who was onstage to hand the award for Best Picture to Shin and Choi.

The crowd had erupted into applause as Shin and Choi bounded up to the stage together. Shin had directed and produced the winning film, but Choi had starred in it, as in the majority of his other films. Shin was best known for his films about women (usually played by Choi) and made for women -- the "rubber-shoed masses" living in Seoul and in the countryside provinces who made up South Korea's most fervent cinema audience. Husband and wife were inseparable in the mind of the public, a glamour couple whose joint company, South Korea's only film studio, Shin Film, and its logo of a flaming torch were immediately familiar to everyone.

Coming up to the stage Choi had walked ahead of her husband, a subtle indication of the modernity of this couple's relationship. As she neared President Park she stopped and bowed deeply, going so far as to drop to one knee, a wry grin on her face. The president and his first lady burst out laughing at her cheeky mimicry of obsequiousness. Behind her Shin reluctantly nodded his head forward, as little a movement as he could get away with. Recognition he liked; rubbing elbows with the powerful likewise. Bowing down to them -- that made him feel distinctly uncomfortable. Maybe it had something to do with his deep distrust of politicians. He had, after all, grown up in a Korea that had been swallowed up into the Japanese empire, given up, by politicians, to be colonized after 1,300 years of sovereignty. When he turned 17 he had left Korea to study in Japan, only to find on his return that he couldn't go to his hometown anymore, because it was now, suddenly, in a completely different country, North Korea -- all because of the maneuverings of politicians. Leftists, rightists, they were all the same to Shin, an ill to be borne and, if possible, taken advantage of.

Maybe it was that. Or maybe he just hated someone else being the center of attention.

On the lawn of the Blue House, Shin stretched his shoulders back and glanced over at Choi, talking with guests a few feet away. She was ravishing in a long dark dress, a cluster of ornamental jewelry drawing the eye to her breasts, as if the plunging neckline weren't mesmerizing enough. (The first lady, in contrast, wore a traditional hanbok dress, long and baggy under the waist, hiding the shape of the hips and legs under endless folds, the collar closed at the neck.) Choi's thick dark hair was pulled back to accentuate her striking face. Glittering earrings dangled from her ears and carefully applied makeup highlighted those famous dark eyes and full lips.

Choi had been famous much longer than either director Shin or President Park; in fact, she had already started making a name for herself on the stage before the end of the Pacific War, when Korea was still one country. Since then she had been a fixture in movie fanzines and the gossip papers. During the traumatic Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, she had worked as a stage entertainer for both sides, and there were rumors that she had lived as an army camp prostitute, undressing in the soldiers' beds at night after she'd sung and danced for them on a stage earlier in the evening. Competing rumors said that she had spent most of the war as the mistress of an American general. After the armistice there had been further scandal when she'd left her first husband, an older, well-respected cameraman who suffered from tuberculosis and had been crippled in the war, for the young, attractive, struggling filmmaker Shin Sang-Ok. With Choi as his leading lady, Shin's fortune had suddenly skyrocketed -- and with the success of their elegant, sophisticated movies, Choi had seen her status dramatically elevated from scandalous loose woman to national treasure.

The photographer waved at everyone to stand still and move closer together. A moment later, the camera's flash bulb popped, immortalizing these three people, who, each in their own way, were about to catapult South Korean cinema from obscurity into international recognition. The camera captured Shin with his hands behind his back and his shoulders arched, a proud, irreverent smirk on his face. The president stood next to him with the stiff bearing of an army man, his black suit melting into the darkness the flash wasn't powerful enough to illuminate around them, his face an enigmatic, faintly menacing mask.

As for Choi, she stood slightly turned to her right, captivated, her eyes glued to her husband.

From "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. Copyright © 2015 by Paul Fischer. Published by Flatiron Books.

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