An Amazon Best of The Year Nonfiction Selection
Library Journal Top Ten Book of the Year!
The Extraordinary True Story of Kim Jong-Il’s kidnapping of the golden couple of South Korean Cinema, The Movies They Were Forced to Make, and Their Daring Escape.
Before becoming the world’s most notorious dictator, Kim Jong-Il ran North Korea’s Ministry for Propaganda and all its film studios. Underwhelmed by the pool of talent available to him he took drastic steps, ordering the kidnap of Choi Eun-Hee (Madame Choi) – South Korea’s most famous actress – and her ex-husband Shin Sang-Ok, the country’s most famous filmmaker. But as Madame Choi and Shin Shang-Ok begin to make North Korea’s greatest films, they hatch a plan of escape worthy of a blockbuster Hollywood ending. A Kim Jong-Il Production is that rarest of books: a wildly entertaining, cunningly told story that offers a rare glimpse into a nation still wrapped in mystery.
“Gripping… A Kim Jong-Il Production tells the absurd, harrowing, and true story of Choi and Shin's ordeal, which reveals the importance of film as propaganda to the North Korean regime.” Esquire.com
“The 1978 abductions of the South Korean actress Choi-Eun-He and her ex-husband, the director Shin Sang-Ok, in Hong Kong is the true crime at the center of Paul Fischer's gripping and surprisingly timely new book.” The New York Times
“An entertaining new book…details how [Shin and Choi] finally seized their chance to seek asylum…A stupefying, novelistic read.” The Boston Globe
“Fischer's entertaining narrative paints an arresting portrait of a North Korean "theater state," forced to enact the demented script of a sociopathic tyrant.” Publishers Weekly
“Paul Fischer's book A Kim Jong-Il Production is a highly illuminating deep dive on the middle Kim's cinematic obsessions and the film arms race between the two Koreas.” The Washington Post
“Exhaustively researched, highly engrossing chronicle of the outrageous abduction of a pair of well-known South Korean filmmakers by the nefarious network of North Korea's Kim Jong-Il.”Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
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About the Author
PAUL FISCHER is a film producer who studied social sciences at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris and film at the University of Southern California and the New York Film Academy. Paul's first feature film, the documentary Radioman, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Doc NYC film festival and was released to critical and commercial acclaim. A Kim Jong-Il Production is his first book.
Read an Excerpt
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 BooksCopyright © 2015 Paul Fischer
All rights reserved.
A Photograph on the Blue House Lawn
Twenty Years Earlier
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 five hundred 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 forty-four 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 fifteen 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 thirteen hundred years of sovereignty. When he turned seventeen 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.CHAPTER 2
Director Shin and Madame Choi
"I call my wife Madame Choi," Shin wrote many years later. "I call her this as a sign of my respect and affection for her."
They had met in Daegu, 150 miles south of Seoul, in the second half of 1953, just a few months after the end of the Korean War. Seoul had changed hands four times during the conflict, the retreating side blowing the bridges and tearing buildings to the ground each time; Pyongyang had been so badly bombed by American planes that only three major buildings were left standing by the time the armistice was signed. Daegu, however, had been held by the United Nations for the course of the conflict and escaped such widespread destruction, so that now, so soon after the fighting had ended, there were still parks to walk around, schools to study in, homes to live in, and—crucially for Shin and Choi—theaters to go to.
This particular evening Shin took his seat in one of the city's auditoriums, eagerly anticipating the show to come. He didn't especially care about the material: he had come to scout the play's star, Choi Eun-Hee, for his second film, a semidocumentary titled Korea, which he hoped would showcase the beauty of a country most famous now for war, poverty, and destruction. Choi Eun-Hee was already an established actress, but Shin knew precious little about her. The play was a swashbuckler, with much sword handling and acrobatic jumps. Midway through the evening, as Shin remembered it, Choi collapsed. A gasp rippled through the audience. "I shot up to the stage," Shin said, and kneeled by her side. He asked her if she was all right. When Choi didn't respond, Shin, in front of the stunned crowd, picked her up, popped her across his shoulder, and carried her, on his back, to the nearest hospital.
Choi had collapsed from exhaustion, and after a doctor examined her, she and Shin started talking. Shin was worried about Choi's current state. She looked fatigued and underfed. Her husband was unable to work because of a war injury. And she was poor, she told him—too poor to heat the house. Shin, who had always had his sights on fame and success, had never imagined that such a famous actress could be so poor. But she had persevered, pouring all her emotions into her work, something he respected and admired. Shin told her he was about to start work on Korea, and would she like to be in it? He was a young, unproven director and she was reluctant, so he promised her a good fee—as much as he could afford. Choi accepted the part.
"He had a beautiful smile," Choi later wrote of the dashing young film director she met that night. "He looked like he had no concerns or difficulties in life." Her scenes in Korea were filmed mostly in Seoul, and she and Shin spent a lot of time together, either on set or sitting in cafés: Choi smoking, watching passersby, and talking about acting and filmmaking, Shin rattling through his ambitions and ideas, how he dreamed of running an independent, integrated studio like those of the Hollywood Golden Age, making any films he wanted. When Choi returned to work on the stage, Shin waited outside the theater after every rehearsal and performance to walk her home, both of them taking their time ambling along the streets, sometimes caught outdoors past the official curfew and having to sneak home like teenagers, careful not to get caught.
Some people worked in show business out of a longing for glamour, others out of a need to be the center of attention. Shin and Choi were different: they both felt a deep passion for their work. It had been so their entire lives. Choi told Shin how she had seen a stage performance as a child in Pusan and fallen in love with it immediately; and how her conservative father had refused to acknowledge her interest, because in Korea actresses were traditionally viewed as little better than courtesans. Besides, a respectable girl's duty was to marry and raise children. So Choi, barely a teenager but already headstrong, had run away from home to pursue her dreams, and had made a success of herself. In return Shin told her about his childhood in Chongjin, in the north of the country, and how he had fallen in love with movies as a young boy, sitting in the traveling tent that came through town to show the moving pictures by foreigners with names such as Georges Méliès, Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and Fritz Lang. It was such an elaborate, hypnotic process: the men busying themselves around the projector, one focusing the lens while others cranked the film through the machine by hand; the boys carrying the heavy reels back and forth while another child fanned the older men sweating in the hot tent. During the film the byeonsa, a male stage performer, narrated the silent black-and-white pictures that flickered to life on the screen like a magical window into an unknown world of hard men, beautiful women, and the odd comedy tramp, where men rode horses in vast deserts and criminals double-crossed each other in crowded cities of tall buildings and twisted light. Between showings water was poured on the screen to cool it off and prevent its catching fire.
Almost every day, Shin would tell her, "Any film I make, I want you to be in it." He described all the roles she could play, from the famous heroines of popular tales to barely defined ideas he was still sketching out in his mind. "This," Choi said, "was how he said he loved me." One day they were in a café when Choi ran out of cigarettes. She smoked Lucky Strikes, but the café didn't carry the brand, so Shin stood up, ran out, and returned with a pack of Luckys. Choi was touched. She opened the packet, slipped one between her lips, and offered him one.
"I don't smoke," Shin said.
"I don't like smoking. My mother smoked."
"Then don't you dislike me smoking in front of you?" she asked.
He smiled. "Please, do as you wish. I don't mind." As he said this he leaned forward and lit Choi's cigarette for her. No one had ever behaved this way around her. He didn't smoke, he didn't drink, he didn't gamble; he was gentle and chivalrous. She liked his kindness. As for Shin, his feelings were undeniable. "It was my destiny," he later said, "to meet her."
* * *
Choi was twenty-seven when she met Shin, but already she had endured a life of pain and struggle. After running away from home at seventeen, her acting career began, unexpectedly, in an air-raid shelter during a drill, when she noticed an actress she liked, Moon Jung-Bok, huddled nearby. There were no class distinctions in the bomb shelters, so Choi gathered the courage to speak to the older woman, who invited her to come see her at her theater troupe's office in Seoul. She asked Choi if she had her parents' permission to leave home and start work. "Yes," Choi lied.
She started work in the troupe's costume department, mending dresses; within a month she was put onstage to play a bit part; and within a couple of years she had an acting career of her own. Offstage she was shy and quiet, but when she performed she came alive. In 1947, at age twenty-one, she was cast in her first film and shortly thereafter married the film's cameraman, Kim Hak-Sung, who was twenty years older than her. She soon regretted the decision. Kim had already been married, to a bar girl who had run away because of his physical violence. He beat Choi, too, and expected her to fulfill all of her duties as a wife (washing, cleaning, cooking, child rearing) as well as be the main breadwinner, since her career was on the rise while his had been slowing down.
Excerpted from A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fischer. Copyright © 2015 Paul Fischer. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Note on Sources
Cast of Characters
Introduction - August 1982
Reel One: A Sense of Destiny
1. A Photograph on the Blue House Lawn
2. Director Shin and Madame Choi
3. Shrimp Among Whales
4. A Double Rainbow over Mount Paekdu
5. Kim Jong-Il's First Loves
6. Fathers and Sons
7. Inside the Pyongyang Picture Show
8. A Three-Second Kiss
9. Repulse Bay
Reel Two: Guests of the Dear Leader
10.The Hermit Kingdom
12. Muscials, Movies, and Ideological Studies
14. The Others
15. Escape from Chestnut Valley
16. Shin Sang-Ok Died Here
17. The Torture Position
18. Division 39
19. The Hunger Strike
20. Director Shin is Coming
Intermission: The People's Actress Woo In-Hee
Reel Three: Produced by Kim Jong-Il
22. The Tape Recorder
23. Lights, Camera...
24. Out of the North
25. Like a European Movie
26. The Press Conference
27. Same Bed, Different Dreams
28. A Full Shooting Schedule
29. The Rubber Monster
31. From Kim to Kim
32. The Stars and Stripes
Epilogue - 2013
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book reads like an action movie at times. The story of Choi Eun-hee and her husband Shin Sang-Ok and their odyssey through North Korea and back home is riveting. The comical disguises of the kidnappers, the elaborate parties they attended, and the story of the dictator's secret family. It gives a great inside look of how Kim Jong Il created a personality cult around himself and his father Kim Il Sung through film. The couples' life in South Korea before being kidnapped is also very interesting filled with scandals and political intrigue, since they were close to South Korean president Park Chung-hee. You start to understand why Kim would pick to kidnap such a prestigious couple, who were somewhat on the decline in their own country at the time. The stories of how the North Korean population buys into the lies presented to them is also highly disturbing. You begin to understand how the dictator used film and images to create a false idea of the country as a paradise. It makes the story seem unbelievable at times and you understand some people's skepticism, but the author does a great job of discrediting any critics of the couple and their story. I highly recommend this book, since its not everyday someone has a story about being taken to North Korea to make movies.
A real life incredible story of what this amazing couple had to go through in order to accomplish their goal of returning to South Korea.
A very enjoyable read... I forget how I first heard of this book. I think the author had an interview on NPR. Regardless, when I heard the seemingly preposterous story that Kim Jong Il had kidnapped an actor and actress of great national acclaim in South Korea to head up his country's film division, I knew that I had to read the book. It does not disappoint... The book is filled with stories of a tyrant dictator run amok. One example: the Kim regime forces his "guests" to write 3-5 pages of voluminous greetings and praise to the dictator on his birthday. No, they couldn't just write anything. They had to follow the style of the official North Korean book that described how to write such greetings. And if the actress, from whose point of view the majority of the story is written from, made just one mistake on the page, her minder would force her to rewrite the entire page. What's the point of that?? The subject content is excellent, but Fischer's writing leaves a little to be desired. The book is written in shorter-length chapters, and at the end of each, he generally throws in a cliff hanger. Most of these are passable, but some feel forced and overly dramatic. Like this, from page 210: "The one man who had the power to order the summary execution of a famous, honored actress who had disappointed him - and to do so with such a ruthless sense of drama and showmanship - was Kim Jong Il." [dramatic music....] Still, it's well worth a read.