A director’s final escape

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A director’s final escape

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Critics divide Korean cinema of the 1960s in two categories: The films made by Shin Sang-ok and the films that weren’t.
That’s not much of an overstatement. Shin, the veteran film director, producer and distributor who died last week, was a monumental figure in modern Korean cinema, pushing artistic, social and political boundaries.
Shin Film, the major production company he set up in 1961, was called a “cinema empire” by industry insiders. The studio launched the careers of literally dozens of Korean actors and directors until the company closed down in 1975, three years before Shin was kidnapped and taken to North Korea at the orders of Kim Jong-il, then the heir of the communist country’s leader, Kim Il-sung.
The number of films he has shot during his earlier years would probably make him one of the most prolific directors in the history of Korean cinema. Since his directorial debut, the 1952 film “Akya” (Evil Night), a story of a man and a prostitute who was a former comfort woman for the Japanese military, he never stopped working.
“He knew nothing but films,” recalls Choi Eun-hee, Shin’s wife and an actress. “He was at his best as a filmmaker, but wasn’t much as a husband. When he was younger, he had never even hammered a nail in the house.”
His biography, it seems, is no different from his filmography.
His “Seong Chunhyang” (1961) was the first color film made in Korea; “Red Scarf” (1964) was the first Korean film to employ special effects.
Conceptually, he pushed social boundaries by bringing to the screen issues that sharply depicted the tension between tradition and modern ideals.
“Women of the Chosun Dynasty” (1969) was an omnibus film comprising four episodes about the social inequality suffered by women in Korea’s strict Confucian society, in particular the repression of women’s sexuality. “Enuch,” the highest-grossing movie of 1968, is still considered one of the most erotic Korean films ever made; the story was based on a tragic tale of love between incarcerated concubines.
Jo Yeong-jeong, a program coordinator for the Pusan International Film Festival, described Shin this way: “He was one of the few directors who understood both his and others’ desires.”
Politically, however, Shin’s life was never tranquil.
During the peak of his career, he maintained a cushy relationship with the government authorities. The couple was often seen dining with former President Park Chung Hee.
Shin’s career, however, began to stumble in 1975 after his company was closed down when a trailer for a joint production with a Hong Kong producer included a scene that had not been properly screened by government censors.
Jo Hee-mun, a professor of film studies at Sangmyung University, described Shin’s position in the Korean film industry during the ‘60s “as a giant man standing alone with his long legs on the ground.”
Shin’s situation, however, was about to get much worse.
In 1978, his wife, who had become one of the biggest stars in the Korean film industry after starring in a number of his films as the female lead, was invited to Hong Kong by a producer there. While in the city, she was abducted and taken to North Korea. Shin was suspected of being an accomplice to the kidnapping. (The couple had been divorced three years prior to the event, after Shin’s affair with another actress became public knowledge.)
But later that year, Shin also vanished into Hong Kong’s autumn haze.
For six years, nothing was known about the couple’s whereabouts.
In 1984, the Korean CIA finally made an official announcement that North Korean agents had kidnapped the couple and taken them to Pyongyang.
The couple spent eight years in the North, reuniting with his former wife in the process. Shin shot seven films for the Workers’ Party, including “Bulgasari,” North Korea’s attempt to make a giant-monster movie like Godzilla. It later became the first Northern film to be shown in the South.
In 1986, the couple staged a dramatic escape with the help of the U.S. Embassy in Canberra during their visit to the Berlin Film Festival in Germany. After the escape, they lived for a short while in Southern California, where they officially remarried.
Shin later recalled that their eight years in the North embroiled them in a love-hate relationship with Kim Jong-il, a major film buff who ventures out to movie sets to give on-the-spot guidance.
Shin, who spent five years in a North Korean prison after his abduction, once described his relationship with Kim as having been built around “five years of hostility and three years of friendship.”
Kim is said to have provided unparalleled support for Shin’s filmmaking during the last few years of Shin’s stay in the North, going so far as to set up in Pyongyang one of Asia’s largest production studios.
The subject matter of the films that Shin had shot in the North created a small revolution in one of the strictest socialist states in the world. The rape scene in the film “Salt” (Sogeum) caused an uproar in the North, though it was later approved by Kim Il-sung, who decided it was a work of artistic expression.
The couple’s return to South Korea was not entirely smooth. Prosecutors briefly considered bringing charges against the couple for contributing to the North Korean Worker’s Party, but eventually dropped the idea.
As a precaution, however, during Shin’s retrospective at Pusan International Film Festival in 2000, one of Shin’s films shot in the North, “The Tale of Escape,” was banned from a public screening on the grounds that it violates the National Security Law. The film tells the story of a leftist author who abandons his family to confront social evils.
The incident was an unusual act of political censorship in a film festival, and damaged the global reputation of the Busan festival, one of Asia’s largest.
Shin’s later films were heavily political related to North Korea.
Altogether, Shin directed and produced around 300 films.
The producer of the “Lord of the Rings” and “Matrix” trilogies, Barry Osborne, is said to be currently in the process of making a movie about Shin’s life.
Perhaps Jo, the film professor, best summed up Shin’s life: “Shin was a businessman with the face of an artist, who went back and beyond commercial success and into auteurist filmmaking.”


by Park Soo-mee, Ju Jeong-wan
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