Wednesday, May 6, 2020

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 was inspired to buy A KIM JONG-IL PRODUCTION after I received and enjoyed an ARC of THE GREAT SUCCESSOR, a biography of Kim Jong-Il's youngest son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-Un. In my review, I praised the author for her diligent research and the honest portrayal of the leader of a hostile nation, where I'm afraid the temptation is, far too often, to demonize. This is dangerous, because cartoonish portrayals of harmful individuals fail to acknowledge what we should all keep in mind: even people who commit harmful acts are people, like you and me, and the things that make them seem most human, even sympathetic, are precisely what make them so effective, and so dangerous. It's important to understand those nuances and keep them top of mind: not just for our own safety, but so we don't emulate those behaviors ourselves.

A KIM JONG-IL PRODUCTION is one of those "stranger than fiction" tales that reads like an airport thriller but is actually true. It is about the South Korean film director, Shin Sang-Ok and his wife, Choi Eun-Hee, and their kidnapping by DPRK officials. Why? Because Kim Jong-Il understood the importance of the legacy of pop culture and what it had to offer, and that in order to be memorable and leave his mark in his country, he would have to contribute something meaningful not just to his people, but also on an international level, as well.

After several escape attempts and even some prison time in the case of Shin Sang-Ok, they were coerced into compliance and ended up making a number of incredibly successful films in DPRK, some of which received international accolades. Perhaps the most famous is Pulgasari, which ironically was the mark of his decline as a film maker and has since received cult status as a "Z movie" on par with The Room and Trolls 2, and its Western remake, Galgameth, is no less heinous, with a character who looks like an extra from the Dinosaurs TV show. But the content he produced pleased Kim Jong-Il, who accorded them more and more freedoms until, finally, they were able to flee to a U.S. embassy where they received asylum.

Fischer does his best to portray Kim Jong-Il as a well-rounded person, who saw nothing wrong with killing those who wronged him (including the public execution of an indiscreet mistress), but genuinely wanted the admiration of his people, and would be self-effacing and abashed by public displays acknowledging his greatness. Shin and Choi, according to this biography, always wanted to escape, but it seems like they came to identify with their captor as well-- by necessity, yes, but also because he was capable of being charming when he wanted to be, even though he also could be cruel, and took care that they never felt too comfortable or at ease around them.

My heart really ached for Choi and Shin. Shin's chapters in the prison were nightmarish, and the descriptions of what happened to Choi during the Korean War and before were heart-rending. Her relationship with Shin should have been an oasis, but his affairs ended up breaking her heart. Ironically, their mutual imprisonment in North Korea ended up bringing the two of them back together and they even remarried-- first at Jong-Il's behest in a trumped-up PR event of a ceremony, but then on their own terms in Europe. It was heart-rending, how they found solace in each other, and it made sense why they got back together: nobody else could have understood their hardship, and I'm sure they found a comfort in the sympathy that arose from their shared tragedy.

The ending, sadly, isn't completely a happily-ever-after. There were plenty of individuals who believed that they lied about their kidnapping and were actual defectors. Their careers tanked. Choi could not find work as an elderly actress of color, and all of Shin's later attempt to direct were relative failures, including many Disney TV movies with abysmal ratings like the aforementioned Galgameth, and 3 Ninjas. I'm sure that was quite a blow, being one of the hallmarks of an era, only to end up doing kids' movies that nobody really liked.

I would recommend A KIM JONG-IL PRODUCTION to anyone who would like to get a nuanced history of the Korean war, North Korea, and Kim Jong-Il, as well as insight into a very strange true crime event from history that people still occasionally make references to to this day. It's definitely not happy reading, so I would save it for a day when you're in the right mental state, but if you can stomach the content, it's fascinating and eye-opening, and will definitely give you new insights into a very secretive nation and the storied history of a tragic couple.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

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