Shin Sang Ok (신상옥) was a legendary South Korean film director in the 1950s and 1960s. Both he and his wife, star actress Choi Eun Hee (최은희), were household names in that era. Always very prolific, he directed over 70 films throughout his life, the “Orson Welles” of South Korea for those who love arbitrary comparisons. He helped progress cinema to new creative heights, and revealed his hallmark independence by refusing to follow orders from the various dictatorships of South Korea, who eventually revoked his license. But a scandal in 1976 resulted in a much publicized divorce from Choi, and his trials would eventually get much worse.
Later that year, Choi was kidnapped in Hong Kong by North Korean agents, and when he went to look for her, they kidnapped him too. Shin would soon find his fate controlled by the whim of Kim Jong Il, who had kidnapped Shin and Choi for the express purpose of forcing them to make films to improve the international image of the Worker’s Party of Korea. While Shin’s initial accommodations were comfortable, he soon tried to escape, and was imprisoned for five years where he had to eat grass and hear propaganda daily. One day he and his wife, whose whereabouts had been totally unknown to him, were suddenly released and summoned by Kim, who then told him that North Korean’s cinematic standards were low, and that Shin could make any film he wanted.
Kim Jong Il gave him more creative room than any North Korean director; when Shin needed a train to explode, Kim immediately gave him one to detonate. While he obviously didn’t have total creative freedom, Kim never forced Shin to make idolatry films. Obsessed with cinema, Kim simply wanted better North Korean films. Quite unsurprisingly, Shin never actually believed in any of the propaganda, he was well aware that pure obedience was only the possible route for survival. He would direct films in North Korea for the next three years. The most famous production of his North Korean period was essentially a Godzilla set in feudal Korea with special effects help from Japan called Pulgasari (불가사리). But Shin’s favorite work was the first one he directed there called Runaway, about a Korean family in 1920s Manchuria, surviving oppression by the Japanese. Such was the very unexpected revival of his career, now worth three million dollars a year, and connection to North Korea’s Dear Leader. Once, Kim was throwing a birthday party for one of his generals, and Shin was present. During an adoring performance of young women wishing him long life, Kim even leaned over to Shin and told him it was all pretense.
After three years and seven films, he and Choi, by then remarried, had developed enough trust from Kim Jong Il, and once when they went to speak with him, Choi bought a small tape recorder beforehand in a Pyongyang Department Store, and made a recording of their conversation with Kim Jong Il lasting over forty minutes. Other than a small snippet of footage from a 1992 military rally and brief audio from the two inter-Korean summits, this is the only known recording of Kim Jong Il’s voice outside of North Korea. They had risked their lives to tape the conversation as proof that they had been abducted. This was presumably more to placate the government of South Korea, which was still under a dictatorship and may have punished Shin had he chosen to return there. He and Choi were eventually permitted to travel on business to Vienna. While there, they managed to escape their minders with the help of a Japanese film critic and sought asylum in a U.S. embassy. He would restart his career in the U.S., and ended up writing and directing some of the 3 Ninjas movies. He eventually returned to South Korea in 1994 and continued working on films there until his death in 2006.
Shin has said that if his life were ever a film, no one would believe it, and I am inclined to agree. Accordingly, his autobiography is entitled “I Was A Film”. He is survived by Choi, who helped published it. They had been remarried at Kim’s recommendation, and it’s fairly safe to say that would not have happened were it not for that eight year sojourn in the North.
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