Double book review: two takes on Shin Sang-ok

by Philip Gowman on 8 January, 2016

in 1960-1993, Book Reviews, Books on DPRK, Books on Film, Shin Sang-ok

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Paul Fischer: A Kim Jong-il Production
Penguin / Viking 2015, 353pp
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Steven Chung: Split Screen Korea – Shin Sang-ok and Postwar Cinema
University of Minnesota Press 2014, 262pp
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The story of actress Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok combines elements of both romance and thriller as well as representing important phases in the history of film in both South and North Korea. Two recent books explore this story from two very different perspectives. Paul Fischer, an independent documentary film producer and writer, tells a strong narrative tale of Shin’s life in film aimed at a broad readership, while Steven Chung, assistant professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, focuses more on Shin’s films and their place in the film history of the two Koreas, and is more geared towards a specialist academic audience.

The source for Paul Fischer’s book is mainly Shin Sang-ok’s and Choi Eun-hee’s own accounts, supplemented and cross-checked with interviews, site visits and other materials. But all the fact-checking is not at the expense of literary style: the book is a real page-turner, and has you gripped from start to finish.

This is a thoroughly engaging narrative which sweeps you along. I only spotted two minor errors – the mis-spelling of pianist Paik Kun-woo’s wife: the actress Yoon Jung-Hee (not Young Jung-Hee as stated in the text eg on p141); and a one-off confusion of composer Yun Isang, a relatively frequent visitor to the North, with the almost-kidnapped pianist Paik Kun-woo (p270).

Inevitably when it comes to South Koreans who have spent time in the North, controversy has arisen over Shin and Choi’s story, with doubts emerging over (in Shin’s case) precisely how reluctant he was to be escorted to the DPRK. Rightly, Fischer’s narrative plays the story straight, presenting the more conventional version that they were both kidnapped, one after the other. In an appendix, he then separately discusses the pros and cons of the alternative version – that Shin at least was a willing defector. Shin’s film-making career had largely come to an end in the South as a result of declining box office success and of annoying the political establishment once too often, and he had yet to make much of a success of himself in the West. An opportunity to make movies in the North supported by what turned out to be virtually unlimited budgets would have proved irresistible, particularly as it would have provided the opportunity to reunite with Choi Eun-hee who was kidnapped or had defected some months earlier. It is an interesting discussion, and after weighing the arguments Fischer comes down in favour of the more familiar version of the story – that of kidnap followed by escape rather than defection followed by re-defection.

The most interesting part of his book deals with Shin’s film-making in the North: how they were made, and how they were received. At one end of the scale, the film-making process was highly bureaucratic. If you worked within the system, you had to plan your material requirements (for example, timber to build a set) a year in advance so that the suppliers could include it in their annual plan. “You had to have a person to estimate the requirements, a person to request allocation, another person to expedite the delivery, another one to deliver it, and so forth” you couldn’t just pick up the phone and ask for something. Unless the person you rang was the Dear Leader himself, that is, in which case you got all you asked for, and more: a fan to create some wind? How about a helicopter instead? Some fake snow? How about an airlift to Mount Baekdu for the proper stuff? A model train to blow up? The real thing is so much more impressive.

In terms of the quality of Shin’s films, Kim Jong-il succeeded in his aim of producing movies far superior to what had come out of North Korea up till then. But this success had its downsides – the expectations of the audience were raised and they realised that what they had been given before then was not of the same standard. Shin was allowed to film in Europe, and thus the domestic audience could see that the evil capitalist west was not perhaps the living hell that they had been brought up to believe.

Do not be put off by the cover with its rather lurid and not very relevant depiction of goose-stepping female soldiers in mini-skirts, together with its dubious claim that this was “the most audacious kidnapping in history”. This is a cracking good read which would have got the full five stars with a more tasteful jacket design.

Steven Chung’s book, though primarily targeted at an academic readership, nevertheless contains much of interest for the generalist reader. In the first chapter, which argues for the importance of the enlightenment film in Korean film history, the pages turn quickly for the wrong reasons – non-specialist readers may find themselves skim-reading until they find material that starts speaking to them. Fortunately this happens in chapter two, which examines the interconnections between the worlds of film, magazines and fashion in the 1950s – a decade which saw the production of Shin’s women’s melodramas. The discussion provides a fascinating insight in to the emerging cultures of post-war South Korea. The subsequent chapter on the regional funding model that drove the commercial style of Shin’s movies is also a valuable contribution to understanding the film industry of the 1960s.

Of course one of the things which makes Shin’s career in film interesting is the time he spent in North Korea, and Chung does a good job in discussing the thematic continuities in Shin’s work despite the geographical and political dislocation. Links are drawn between his enlightenment films from the 1960s (Rice (1963) and Evergreen (1961)) and similarly socially-aware films made in North Korea: Salt (1985, based on a short story by Kang Kyung-Ae), and Record of an Escape (1984, based on a story by Ch’oe Seo-hae). Similarly his Red Muffler was recast in North Korea as Red Wings, while his South Korean Seong Chunhyang grew into the big budget North Korean musical Oh My Love.

A brief final chapter looks at Shin’s career after escaping from North Korea. These final films in his filmography continued the trend of seeking spectacle. Though he never realised his treasured project Genghis Khan, his film about the bombing of KAL123 made a spectacle of the mid-air explosion – something which got Shin in trouble with the families of the victims who accused him of exploitation.

In summary, after a slow start Steven Chung’s book provides a wealth of insight into Shin’s film-making, while Paul Fischer gives you a highly readable biography.

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