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Kim Jong-Il: Movie Buff, Supervillain

North Korea SuccessionBy 1978, Shin Sang-ok, South Korea’s best-known filmmaker, was 51 years old and washed up. He had bankrupted his studio, run afoul of the censor board, and been divorced by his wife and collaborator, actress Choi Eun-hee. And then he and Choi were kidnapped by North Korea. The story of how the couple’s careers were forcibly revived, as told in Paul Fischer’s book, A Kim Jong-Il Production, provides not only a riveting look inside a murky state, but a glimpse into North Korea’s movie obsession, and a lens through which to see the current regime’s outrage at the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy The Interview. The book’s titular “production” is North Korea itself, which Fischer depicts as “a theatre state” propped up by symbols and spectacles, its ideological cornerstone a film treatise: Kim’s 1973 book, On the Art of Cinema.

Fischer, a film producer based in London, was moved to write the book, in part by the fact that Choi, now 87, lives in comparative poverty in Seoul; she remains afraid of being kidnapped again or harmed by North Korean operatives, but wanted her story told. In North Korea, she and Shin (who died in 2006) were each subjected to five years of incarceration and indoctrination—Shin in increasingly worse prison conditions after escape attempts, Choi in relative luxury, forced to attend parties with Kim. Shin and Choi were reunited, personally and professionally, by Kim in 1983, and tasked with making films that would glorify the regime but play well abroad. In 1986, after seven such productions, veering from internationally praised gritty realism (Salt) to monster schlock (Pulgasari), they slipped their minders in Vienna and escaped. But though they had evidence they had been kidnapped—presented in Fischer’s meticulously researched book—they were widely discredited. Kim Jong Il’s lies had a long reach.

Story continues at Maclean’s


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