Throughout the small amount of me-time during the latter end of the summer, I crushed through one of the most captivating (for me) non-fiction reads of recent memory, 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. I finished it last night.
A Kim Jong-Il Production follows the true story of, more or less, the rise and fall and rise and fall of two of the most reputable figures of the South Korean film industry, Shin Sang-ok (the country’s most famous director) and Choi Eun-hee (the country’s most famous actress); a Korean power couple who in addition to being internationally acclaimed artists, attended parties with both the third South Korean President, Park Chung-hee, as well as North Korea’s Second Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-Il. In North Korea, they are officially forgotten outside of whispers. In South Korea, their names today are as recognizable as Clint Eastwood and Marilyn Monroe are in the United States; albeit, due to their dramatic lives straddling the Asian front of the Cold War, they are subject to deep controversy of national identity and loyalty. The couple is accredited for lobbing South Korea’s film industry on to the international circuit, as well as for salvaging North Korea’s. Their films are analyzed in top film schools; their kidnapping studied by national security experts throughout the world.
In 1978, Choi was kidnapped in Hong Kong and taken to North Korea. Shortly thereafter, Shin, in search of Choi, was, too, kidnapped and taken to North Korea. North Korea’s then-future Supreme Leader, Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il, a film fanatic and avid movie collector, had ordered their abduction, set on using Choi and Shin to create critically acclaimed films in order to resurrect North Korea’s struggling film industry for propaganda purposes both domestically and abroad. Following imprisonment and “reeducation,” Choi and Shin went on to create seven films for Pyongyang prior to their escape ‘West of the Wall.’
A Kim Jong-Il Production is organized in three acts: chronicling first the couples’ rise to South Korean stardom; second, their early years in separated captivity; and lastly their rise to North Korean stardom and eventual escape. Fleshed with details, background, and side-tales, Fischer manages to string together a vivid perspective of a story mostly unknown in today’s West. The book, whether intentionally or not, reads much like a film; just when a passage or chapter comes to a close, Fischer effortlessly creates a level of tension comparable to a scene change in Taxi Driver. Though over three-hundred pages in length, A Kim Jong-Il Production manages to be a quick, but deep read.
Fischer’s book is at the same time a haunting tale of the horrors of war, a look at twentieth century pop-culture often unknown here in the West, a passionate love story, and a character study of one of the most infamous leaders of modern society - all against the backdrop of geopolitical Cold War tensions that most Millennials will never truly comprehend. I came away from A Kim Jong-Il Production, not only with a better understanding of human nature and Korean pop-culture, but a greater respect for the security and communications challenges of the Cold War, as well as the challenges faced by the film industry in the twentieth century.
One major grievance: though, A Kim Jong-Il Production is the first full-length English version of Shin and Choi’s tale, there is a lack of footnotes, endnotes, an index, or really any in-depth source-attribution. It is apparent that Fisher did not intend for this book to have an audience of security analysts, policy makers, or students to use as an accountable reference; and thus, it is impossible to consider this read as academically reliable. However, it is possible that the work may contribute to reinvigorate public interest in North Korea’s intriguing history.
If you have an interest in film, East Asian geopolitics, pop-culture history, or the mysteries of North Korea, A Kim Jong-Il Production may be one of 2015’s best reads for you – just do not count on sourcing it in your senior thesis.
Find it on Amazon, at your local library, or your local bookstore. Connect with me on goodreads, and let me know what you think – or tell me what I should read next.
by Morgan Luther (@morgzyoloha)