A Kim Jong-Il Production: A True Story

Today I'd like to talk to you about the director of 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up.

It's been some time since my last book review, and I've been trying to keep away from that sort of thing (I've read a lot of books in 2017, and while they've mostly been great and I've got a lot to say about them, they haven't had much to do with movies). I haven't done a proper film review in some time, though I've got some planned. Don't get it twisted; movies are still my favorite act of escapism; I just read when I've got a little bit of downtime and I'd to look away from a screen for a bit. Ocular health is important, kids.

More to the point, I've just come across a book that needs to be talked about. North Korea is back in the news (really, it never leaves the news), and that led me to ponder about the world's most mysterious evil dictatorship. Specifically, I was reminded of a story I had read several years ago involving the abduction of a South Korean film director who was forced to make a particularly shitty Godzilla rip-off, who then made his own daring escape from the country in a story that really could have been made into a movie itself (and, in fact, it has).

I remembered the story recently, and decided to purchase A Kim Jong-Il production off Amazon on a whim. This is the best purchase I've made in a very long time. Paul Fischer has created a singularly spectacular work, a book which rises above every other book I've read on North Korea. It is the single greatest piece of literature I've read on film, even better than Harlan Ellison's Watching. Hell, it's the best damn book I've ever read, period. I'm completely serious.

Cast your mind back: it was the 1970s. The Beatles had gone their separate ways. The Miami Dolphins had a good football team. People thought Gallagher was funny. The world had discovered a few decent movies like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws, Star Wars, Rocky, and the unforgettable Western classic, Trinity Is Still My Name. Kim Jong-Il had seen 'em all.
Well, maybe he hadn't seen Trinity yet.
That's a surprisingly pretty big deal for a North Korean - even someone with as much clout as a despot like Kim Jong-Il. See, in the world's merriest hellhole, it was (and remains, to my knowledge) illegal to consume foreign media without the watchful guidance of the state. The reasoning seems to have been if you watch a movie like Annie Hall, you might be tempted to turn capitalist - in an authoritarian state where you're forced to live as a socialist anyway. Heaven forfend someone watch a pro-capitalism movie like Blazing Saddles. Thus, the unwashed masses didn't get to watch classics like Alien and Animal House. There are special rules that apply when you're a psychotic megalomaniac who's deified by millions, though.

"Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia!"

Kim Jong-Il was only the second-in-command at the time, but he still had nearly as much power and freedom as his father, Kim Il-Sung. He mostly used this to amass a frankly astonishing library of films; something like 20,000 movies were held in his private collection, and he watched all of 'em. I can't lie: I'm a little impressed. Then again, he admitted one of his favorite series was Friday the 13th, so it just goes to show that no matter how many movies you watch, it's not gonna improve your taste. Look at me; I've seen 1,200 movies and I still love John Leguizamo in Spawn.

As Kim Jong-Il stared forlornly out the window of one his many opulent villas, he grappled with an intense problem: why didn't people love his beautiful, perfect, picturesque country? Was it the authoritarian control that enforced a cult of personality on the heads of state? The mass starvation? The total lack of freedom? The multiple torture camps? No, Kim realized; it was none of the above. People didn't love North Korea because its movies sucked.

Kim Jong-Il was many things, but he wasn't completely delusional. He knew that North Korean cinema was significantly far behind the rest of the world in terms of quality. There are many reasons for this, and having a socialist dictatorship certainly didn't help (for more information on this, read page 333 of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty), but one of the reasons that's fairly obvious and more-than-fairly critical is that the rest of the world was free to pursue works of practically any nature, any genre, any message. In North Korea, all works have to glorify the wonder of the state in some capacity. This neuters the medium, as much as Kim refused to admit it. There had to be another reason. He decided it was a lack of talent.

Solution: kidnap the most famous actress in South Korean history, Choi Eun-hee, and force her to make movies for you. Kim Jong-Il did just that. She was less than thrilled about the prospect, naturally. That wasn't enough, though: he then moved on to kidnap the most famous director in South Korean history, Shin Sang-Ok, and told him to make some movies for the clearly superior North Korea. It's important to note that the book is really more about these two individuals, and the fascinating lives they led. They were huge in South Korea (which wasn't a particularly fun place to live after the Korean War), and Kim Jong-Il knew it. Shin and Choi had even been married, but they divorced later and lost touch somewhat. After the kidnappings, neither knew what had become of the other. Shin made two daring escape attempts (each would be excellent scenes in a Hollywood thriller), but he was caught and sent to a North Korean torture camp.

I have to say something important here.

Throughout this piece - and every piece I've posted here - I've made a variety of jokes about this, that, and the other thing. I cannot make any jokes about the North Korean torture camps. They are among the darkest marks in the history of humanity. Every description of them chills your blood and damages your soul. They are pure evil. The horror that comes from these dark places is enough for me to warn any prospective reader: things get more than a little intense. It only gets more terrifying when you realize they still exist today - and everything that means. North Korea is a nightmare.

It took some time, but Shin eventually cracked. He finally agreed to make Kim's damned movies. Kim loved this. He invited both Shin and Choi to one of his massive secret parties, with singing, dancing, massive alcohol, and the Joy Brigade (teenage girls well trained in the art of "entertaining") running around. These were fruits that 99% of North Korea could not only enjoy, but not even know about. You had key members of the military, government elites, and the aforementioned Joy Brigade; everyone sycophantic in their praise of Kim Jong-Il. There, they met for the first time in years.

Shin had been in a torture camp just days before this picture was taken.

Shin and Choi were very happy to be reunited, and they quickly fell back in love (they even remarried, in a very heartwarming moment). They also set to work making movies for the state, but they did something else that was even more important: they set to work surreptitiously recording their conversations with Kim Jong-Il. This was extremely risky, but it was essential to prove their innocence: people thought they willingly defected to the North, and Kim forced them to admit this in public. The tapes would prove otherwise.

Shin and Choi went on to make the best films in North Korean history. This doesn't sound like much, but a couple of these movies are pretty damn good in their own right. Salt is an enjoyable watch, for instance. Unfortunately, Shin was also forced to direct Pulgasari, which might very well be the worst kaiju movie ever made (and if you know the genre as well as Mr. Pataki does, that's saying something). Basically, imagine if Godzilla was a parable about the virtues of socialism.

Excellent fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000

Back on planet earth: Shin and Choi had been gaining more and more respect from the world's shortest evil dictator, and were even allowed to go to Vienna. Not a particularly brilliant move on Kim's part, considering what Vienna represented to the world at that time in history. There, they engineered a daring escape from their omnipresent North Korean minders, leading to a thrilling taxi chase that ended with them taking refuge in the American embassy. They then relocated to Reston, Virginia.

The very place I now call home.

This book is the most incredible true story I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It's better than most fictional stories, to be perfectly frank. One of my favorite things is the appendix, where all of the author's sources are listed in meticulous detail. It is a very sad, unfortunate thing that some people still doubt this story; Paul Fischer does an excellent job at the end of the book of dispelling any doubt as to the veracity of the story's events. Choi Eun-hee was asked what she wanted everyone to take away from her account, and she said this: "That the truth is the truth." I think this book conveys that masterfully.

An important note is that the basis of the story itself, that an evil dictator wanted to improve his nation's film industry so much that he kidnapped two people to make a shitty Godzilla knock-off, is pretty funny on its face, and indeed much of the book is farcical, but it's nowhere near as funny as I thought it would be. That's not at all a bad thing. The story is thrilling, mystifying, horrifying, tragic, touching, fascinating, and shocking. Even if you're as well-versed in North Korean history as I am, you're still finding yourself white-knuckling the pages and staying up to find out what happens next. I slept 13 hours over a period of three days while reading this book (combined with my 10-hour days at work), and I don't regret a second of it.

There was a time in Bill Clinton's life where every gift he gave to people was a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. This might be something I will emulate in the future, giving everyone a copy of A Kim Jong-Il production. I know it's not Anna Karenina, or The Count of Monte Cristo, or The Art of War. I don't care. I love this book more than any other I've ever read, and I want everyone to know about it. If you see it delivered to you at some point in the mail, expect it as a present from me. Happy birthday. Merry Christmas. Blessed Solstice. Whatever. You all need to read this book. Everyone needs to know this story. It's not about coming to grips with the iniquitous system of governance in North Korea; it's about learning the extraordinary journey of two incredible people.

Please buy this book. Also, make sure to check out our podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and GooglePlay. It's the second-best podcast ever made.


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