pulgarsari: filmaker kidnapper    ¨The cinema’s main objective is to turn citizens into good communists. This historical challenge, amongst others, means that directors must be educated with revolutionary values¨. The quote is from one of previous North Korean president Kim Jong-il ‘s hundreds of books. And so it was. As Kim Jong-il couldn’t find appropriate directors in his country, he kidnapped a South Korean director. He took him to a re-education centre and, amongst other things, made him film a socialist version of Godzilla. Shin Sang-ok was a well-known South Korean film director in the 60’s and 70’s. He became known as the South Korean Orson Wells. He developed his own style and offered spectators entertainment after the grey post-war years. He married the famous actress Choi Eun-he and they became the country’s favourite couple. Until General Park Chung Hee’s repressive government closed his studio down in 1978. The director, who had made more than 60 films over 20 years, was forbidden to make any more films. As well as films for pure entertainment, in movies such as My mother and the Roomer, The Eunuch and The Evergreen Tree there were characters (mostly women) who had traces of class consciousness and a sense of the injustice of society. That is why they closed his studio and maybe that, too, is why he became the North Korean leaders “director of choice”.

As soon as the studio was closed Shin and Choi got divorced. Even so, they moved to Hong Kong with the idea of carrying on making films there. When they set up Shin Films, North Korean agents disguised themselves as producers. But it wasn’t actually a disguise. You could say they had a special way of investing in the cinema. Finally at a casting session they kidnapped Choi and, the same night, at a dinner party, chloroformed Shin and disappeared her.

They woke up in North Korea and the couple wouldn’t meet again for four years. Shin immediately tried to escape to the south, but they caught him and sent him to an education camp. He spent four years there doing hard labour, barely surviving and not understanding the reasons behind what had happened. Until one day they put him into a car and took him to his ex-wife Choi’s house. They spent a week there, locked up but comfortable. Until the big day arrived. They took the couple to see president Kim Jong-il. First of all, he apologised for the reception they had been given. He explained that
everything had been an official’s mistake (a mistake which had lasted four years) and he was ready to make it up to them. He was a huge follower of Shin’s films and “invited” them to take part in the North Korean cinema revolution.
What the great leader didn’t know, however, was that Choi had managed to get a tape recorder on the black market and, with it hidden in her handbag, she recorded the 45-minute conversation. She risked her life but, when she went back to South Korea later, it was her strongest proof against charges of spying and treason.

But that return journey was not to happen until a few years later. Before that, and under the wings of the great leader, she became a North Korean film star. Loved by the regime, they had a lifestyle reserved for only the elite. In a short time Shin went from eating grass to being the most
important man in North Korean cinema. As well as knowing about all the different sides of the cinema (production, distribution...), he also took new stories and contemporary techniques to North Korean cinema. He soon started going to film festivals in communist countries around the world to show them North Korea’s “new cinema”.
Shin directed seven films in North Korea. Amongst them, the film he made in 1984 and which, paradoxically, he claims to be his very best: Runaway. However, his best-known film was Pulgarsari. It is, in fact, a socialist Godzilla. A monster who fights an oppressive king in the name of the people. It was a super production and thousands of soldiers and resources were used to film Pulgarsari. Nowadays, as well as being an obvious metaphor for the North Korean regime, the steel-eating socialist monster has become an icon for freaky film lovers.

In 1986, when he was working on a historical film (about when Mongolian invaders reached Korea), Shin met up with some Austrian distributors in Vienna. He asked for Choi to be able to go with him: a well-known actress would be able to help with the negotiations. Although they had a luxury life in North Korea and all the resources they needed to make films, they didn’t miss the chance to escape. They managed to get into a taxi with a Japanese critic who was a friend of theirs and tricked the agents sent by the regime to get into another taxi. Instead of going to the restaurant,
they went to the US embassy in a tense escape.

When they went back to South Korea they were not given a warm welcome. Whether the couple actually wanted to escape has always been held in doubt. For instance, in the series of films by Shin shown at the Bûsang Film Festival, they refused to show Runaway on the basis that it was North Korean propaganda. Shin Sang-ok died in 2006. Until his last breath he was a controversial character, uncomfortable for the authorities.
Choi wrote an autobiography. She lives in Seoul.