At age 75, his hair is still black as a raven's back. When he's out and about these days, he wears, as he always has, a navy blue suit, crisp white shirt and a blue and white silk ascot. Large, square-framed, gray-tinted, circa 1970s eyeglasses decorate his face. When he talks, it's with sort of a John Wayne-like smirk and the words resound with the confidence of a movie star.
To understand Korean cinema, one must understand Shin Sang-ok, who ushered in the golden age of cinema in Korea in the 1960s. Indeed, his life could be a movie, for he:
- brought live sound to Korean films;
- created Korea's first movie studio;
- was kidnapped by North Korea and spent nearly a decade there, producing and directing;
- befriended both Kim Jong-il and Park Chung Hee;
- directed more than 70 films, many of which are considered masterpieces;
- introduced cinemascope films to Korea, as well as the telephoto lens and the zoom lens; and
- won five Best Picture and Best Director awards at the Asian Film Festival in the 1960s and '70s.
These days, Shin has been working on a movie about Alzheimer's disease and is directing a musical, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," starring his wife, Choi Eun-hee, also an icon of Korean cinema.
"For Whom the Bell Tolls," is, of course, the story of an American soldier during the Spanish civil war. Although Ernest Hemingway's novel had already been made into a movie, Shin thought that the book's plot and setting, which take place over only three days, were dramatic enough to be set on the stage.
Shin was clearly aware of the tastes of the contemporary audience when he chose to work on such a classical work. "In singing rooms, young people nowadays sing only the first verse because they are impatient. So the musical is speedy in its development and spectacular in production. Some older women complained that the explosions used in the musical were too loud, but I insisted on using real gunpowder for the guns and the demolition of the bridge. Also, Korea has imported various Broadway productions, and we [his wife, the chairwoman of the production company, and Shin] wanted to create an original musical."
His version sticks close to the original story line, which, he believes, reflects the political and personal situation in Korea. Shin's ultimate objective in offering the musical to the public can be understood through a new character, Rosa, who asks the American soldier why he fights for Spain.
The theme of fighting for freedom has become an important agenda to Shin, who has spent so much of his life struggling to gain freedom, both personal and artistic.
A native of Cheongjin in North Hamgyeong province in North Korea, Shin went to Japan at the age of 15 to study fine art at the Tokyo Art School for three years. He returned to Korea in 1943 and started his film career as a production designer on "Viva Freedom," the first movie made after Korea gained independence from Japanese colonial rule. He then became an assistant director for "The Night Before Independence Day."
In 1952, in the middle of the Korean War, he made his directorial debut with "The Evil Night" ("Akya"), based on a novel by Kim Kwang-ju. His early works from the 1950s, such as "The Evil Night" and "A Flower in Hell" ("Jiokhwa," 1958), feature yanggonju or female sex workers for American soldiers.
Almost from the beginning of his career, Shin both produced and directed his films, and he created his own studio, the Shin Film Company.
Shin has also been praised as the "master of genres" for broadening the range of Korean cinema. Shin worked on period dramas, or sageuk, melodramas and realist films. He even tried oriental westerns, "Drifter" ("Musukja," 1968) and musicals, "I Love Mama" (1975). Sageuk in particular made Shin's reputation, influencing even the historical dramas on television today.
Shin's films are "an art of images, sound and technology, with a resulting emphasis on cinematography and editing," according to Han Sang-jun, the programmer of the Busan International Film Festival. Dynamic camera movement, rich and sophisticated colors and artistic productions were all integral parts of Shin's distinct style.
Shin and his film company fell from favor in the 1970s, both with the public and the government. He defied the government's orders to cut and censor his films until they revoked his film license, and most of the films he made in this period were flops.
In 1978, Shin and Choi were abducted in Hong Kong by North Korea. In the Stalinist state, he continued to make films, directing seven and supervising another 11. Those films included "An Emissary of No Return" ("Doraojianneun Milsa," 1984), the first film made in North Korea and winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, and "Salt," which won Choi Eun-hee the Best Actress award at the Moscow International Film Festival. The couple escaped to the United States via Austria in 1986.
Since his escape, he's made a few films in South Korea, such as "Mayumi" (1990), the story of a North Korean terrorist agent who bombed a Korean airplane in 1987, and "Vanished" ("Jeungbal," 1994), a fictional depiction of the rise and fall of the former President Park Chung Hee's regime.
He has also made films in Hollywood, including "Three Ninjas 3" in 1995.
With more retrospectives opening in the United States and France, Shin Sang-ok will never cease to inspire movie-lovers around the world.
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" will run until Jan. 27 at the Seoul Arts Center. For information or reservations, call 02-580-1234 (Korean service only).
Choi Eun-hee up close
IHT-JAI: How do you and the director work together?
Choi: In the first movie I did, I was a widow, and I was usually portrayed as a virtuous woman in most of my films except for "A Flower in Hell" and "Romance Gray."
In "For Whom the Bell Tolls," the audience will see a very different character. When we both are at work shooting a film, he doesn't treat me like his wife. Of course, we, as a director and an actor, agree on basic principles, but he doesn't actually interfere with my work. When I do a difficult scene, like a rape scene or love scene, he pushes me to show more emotion.
IHT-JAI: What did you have to do to look your part?
Choi: In those days, I had no stylist or make-up artist. I had to prepare everything from the costume to the make-up to hair-style. I watched Hollywood movies and studied the style a lot by myself. In "A Flower in Hell" my role was to play a prostitute working near the American army base, and so I went to the area to see how prostitutes there dressed. Of course, they weren't as sophisticated as the movie's heroine, Sonya, but the clothes I wore were considered outrageous in those days. I had one of dressmakers in Myeongdong make my dresses for the movie.
To dress the part for sageuk, or historical dramas, I looked at the real traditional costumes, but the original costumes were too much for the contemporary setting. The real classic hanbok skirt, for example, had five deep gathers in the front, and so it was not only too big, but it also looked outdated. So I designed a modern version of the hanbok with an A-line skirt, which was simpler yet distinctively Korean, and with a hanbok top that had slimmer sleeves. After that, I saw all Korean designers followed the style.
I'm familiar with the original "For Whom the Bell Tolls," starring Ingrid Bergman, who is my favorite actress. I've studied the classic version for many years and wanted to introduce a new style in the musical.
The master speaks
IHT-JAI: You've been dubbed the "prince" or "giant" of Korean films. How do you compare making films in the old days and now?
Shin: I don't think I deserve such grand titles. I just lived through times of turmoil. I didn't have a good environment to produce good movies. Back in the time when I was making "King Yeonsan," for example, I ran short of money. It was embarrassing that the movie had to be finished between New Year's Day and lunar New Year's Day, which are only a month and a half apart.
Good story-telling is important, but I wanted to approach the characters' humanity. Before I became a movie director, I was a painter. When I was painting, I was the type who would first draw something and then, if I didn't like it, I would scrape everything off the canvas and start again.
As a filmmaker, I think I work like a painter. In many of my period films, the king wears yellow robes, and many television period dramas nowadays follow the color schemes I did. But in fact that is incorrect because I didn't strictly adhere to the historical record. For me, dressing the king in yellow was what looked good to my eyes as a production designer; it was part of my cinematic expression.
IHT-JAI: Many of your films include portrayals of Korean women living in different periods, and their personas carry deep, universal elements.
Shin: Korea used to be a feudal society. I wanted to praise Confucian culture, especially its morality and views of women. Of course, there is a generation gap between then and now in how women are viewed. Now, most Korean films seem to concentrate only on sexual aspects.
IHT-JAI: What is your view on North Korea?
Shin: When I miss having lots of money, I think about North Korea. But if we hadn't left early on, we could not have returned.
I was lucky there because I could do anything I wanted; I was provided with plenty of money, staff and actors. So I made seven movies in two years. North Korea had been engaged in terrorist activities even then, so they wanted to improve the country's image abroad, especially by making propaganda movies.
IHT-JAI: What kind of person was Kim Jong-il when you were living in North Korea?
Shin: He began his career as a director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Korean Workers Party. In socialist countries like North Korea, a good filmmaker is regarded as an able man, and he soon earns recognition. He used that as the means to his political success and gained trust from his father, Kim Il Sung.
Kim Jong-il had a talent in filmmaking, in fact. He had a vast film library and was very knowledgeable about movies. But the problem with him was that he couldn't distinguish fiction from reality. Sometimes my name was taken out of films because Kim wanted to take the credit.
IHT-JAI: What do you think is most important in filmmaking?
Shin: Freedom! The difference between the past and the present is freedom. I had no freedom when I was making films. Without freedom, one cannot create great films.
Look at North Korea or Russia, no matter how much money they invest, they cannot produce great films. Even in South Korea, it's been only five or six years since the country, under President Kim Dae-jung, had real freedom.
IHT-JAI: What are your future plans?
Shin: I will make movies until the day I die. I was thankful to all those involved to realize the retrospective of my work for the Busan International Film Festival. I'm happy and grateful. There were some movies I haven't seen in 40 years. While viewing the films, I thought how the sensibilities of the times have changed and how much I had exerted my effort making films. I felt that my work has become an integral part of film development, from 1945 until now.
I am making a small film that has a universal theme, rather than an international one, a story about an old man with Alzheimer's disease. It's going to be released in two months.
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" is a musical that mixes theater and motion pictures made to satisfy the contemporary generation. The musical is modern and speedy like its plot. The three-day story set in Spain's mountains has a theatrical element, and based on my experience in North Korea ?I was imprisoned for almost four years there ?I thought of an imaginary world set on the stage.
My version is different from Hemingway's original because I added a character named Rosa, who asks for the involvement of the American soldier. I wanted to bring out the importance of guarding justice and freedom in this world, and the story of a hero turned out to be timely, especially after the World Trade Center was attacked, although I didn't plan it that way.
After that, I will work on "Genghis Khan," another musical. In March, the Modern Museum of Modern Art in New York will hold a retrospective of 12 of my films, including "A Flower in Hell," "King Yeonsan," "Phantom Queen" and "Vanished."
The Asian Film Festival in Deauville, France, will feature my films as well from March 7 to 10. I'm negotiating to release all my works on DVD, which will probably be ready by the end of this year.