Bradley K. Martin is the author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty” and holds the Roger Tatarian chair in journalism at California State University, Fresno.
By Paul Fischer
Flatiron. 353 pp. $27.99
Imagine you’re a film producer who’s developing a new movie to be based — like your Oscar-winning “The Last Emperor” (1987) — on a true story. What could be more cinematic than the bizarre tale of how North Korean agents in 1978 kidnapped South Korea’s top director and No. 1 female star, taking the pair to Pyongyang to make movies for the seriously peculiar second-generation dictator Kim Jong Il?
You find that the kidnap victims, along with many journalists and historians, have published versions of the episode, some at considerable length — but no one has yet put together the various factual details and theories from those sources to produce a single document. Why not produce such a document and package it as a tie-in book, aiming at the bestseller list in the tradition of the print version of “Argo”? That’s what seems to have been the plan with Briton Jeremy Thomas’s project to produce a film, “A Kim Jong-il Production,” which climaxes with the kidnapped couple’s escape — complete with car chase.
It’s certainly a story that bears retelling. As Paul Fischer, the book version’s author, reminds us, Kim Jong Il focused much of his time and enthusiasm on show business during the decades he was securing his position as designated successor to his father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the communist North Korean state. (His son, current leader Kim Jong Un, recently took an inordinate interest in the film business in the United States, sparking international headlines when his minions apparently hacked into Sony Pictures Entertainment as the company was about to release “The Interview,” a movie that centers on the assassination of the young dictator himself.)
Like Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s fourth wife and one of the leaders of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Kim Jong Il sought to tear apart existing forms in film (and in opera) so he could remake them in the service of a new ideological emphasis. In North Korea’s case, everything had to contribute to the people’s single-hearted worship of the leader. Kim had an artistic sensibility and organizational skills. He managed with his limited domestic resources to produce some notable works. But the lifelong film buff watched with dismay as the narrowness of theme that he had imposed and the bureaucratic sloth of his movie-making subordinates put the country further and further behind world standards.
Thanks to the Kims’ notorious penchant for playing God, North Korea already had the infrastructure for kidnapping foreigners to work in spy-training institutes as teachers and models of foreign languages and cultures. So it wasn’t much of a jump for Kim Jong Il to have his men abduct South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and then her estranged husband, the South’s leading director, Shin Sang-ok. With the recalcitrant Shin finally tortured into submission, Kim gave the reunited pair carte blanche to make world-class movies. They used their acting skills to pretend that Kim had won their loyalty and to wait for a chance to escape. In the meantime, they were delighted to have a second chance to complete their life’s work. Fischer tells us that the movies they turned out in the new Pyongyang studio Kim provided for them were the best ever produced in North Korea, departing from the “usual propaganda mold” of nationalistic dramas.
“In 1985 and 1986 they made a lighthearted romantic melodrama, Love, Love, My Love; a social-realist tragedy, Salt; an extravagant musical reminiscent of Busby Berkeley, with fantasy creatures, expensive costumes, and underwater scenes, The Tale of Shim Chong; and North Korea’s first martial arts action film, Hong Kil-dong,” Fischer writes. “Every one of the pictures broke with tradition. Love, Love My Love was the first time romance had been portrayed on a North Korean screen.”
“Pulgasari,” on the other hand, a knockoff of “Godzilla” that became the most famous film of Shin’s career, “was the worst film he had ever made,” Fischer says. Never mind, though. Kim loved the monster flick, saw international box office potential, and was persuaded to authorize the couple to open a Vienna office to produce and export North Korean movies. Thus he inadvertently handed them the keys to their escape from a Vienna hotel to the U.S. Embassy — by taxi, with their frantic North Korean minder-guards chasing them in another cab.
While an Internet search reveals that Thomas has been working on the movie project at least since 2010, what about the book’s author? Fischer is a young movie producer who publicly entered the picture much later. His first feature film, the documentary “Radioman,” won the Grand Jury Prize at the DOC NYC festival in 2012. But he’s new to the Pyongyang-watching community, and a look at his Facebook page suggests that he came to the project quite late. On Aug. 9, 2013, he posted that he was “in the middle of six months off filmmaking to write a book, traveling, learning to fly a plane, reading.”
Six months! Wow. North Korea is one of the least-penetrable countries in the world. It’s easy to see why Fischer, even if he’s a lightning-fast writer, needed the help of all the assistants, researchers and translators — a platoon of them — whom he names and thanks effusively in his acknowledgments.
All that combined effort means there’s no shortage of detail, perhaps helpful to the scriptwriters. But how many book-readers will need more than 300 pages of detail? (The publisher’s boast of an “untold story” is hype, of course.) A jacket blurb describes the volume as “unputdownable.” Perhaps that will prove to be true for some readers. Fischer is a fluent writer, clearly knowledgeable about film, and he has a dramatic story to tell. But we end up with a huge number of printed words concerning a case whose outlines remain familiar to many people. Although it’s fair to call the book a nonfiction thriller, I suspect many readers will put it down multiple times before managing to finish it.
It’s something of a service to specialists on North Korea that the book provides the first full-length English version of Shin and Choi’s story. But Fischer clearly was not writing for us Pyongyang-watchers. That’s shown by the lack of an index. And, particularly annoying, it’s shown by a general avoidance of source attribution. This is true not only in the Shin and Choi chapters — where we may at least assume that he’s largely quoting or paraphrasing the couple’s various published Korean-language memoirs — but also, and more troubling, in chapters that depart from the couple’s personal saga to sketch the background political situation.
There are no footnotes — not even endnotes of the sort that popular authors adopt when they want to avoid reeking of the academy. Fischer boasts of having done some 50 interviews, but he seldom offers any indication that what he’s relating came from one of those rather than having been lifted from published sources. In short, he fails to give us the tools to determine how reliable his account is.
You may want to wait for the movie.