At the summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore, U.S. President Donald Trump screened a faux movie trailer so bizarrely flattering of the dictator that many U.S. reporters at first mistook it for North Korean propaganda. The country is famous for heavy-handed state films praising Dear Leader, particularly those movies commissioned under Kim Jong-un’s cinema-obsessed father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il.
In fact, the late Kim’s movie mania was so intense that in 1978, he kidnapped a famous actress and a director from South Korea and forced them to make 17 films.
The actress, Choi Eun-hee, and her director-husband, Shin Jeong-gyun, were a celebrity couple during the Golden Age of South Korean cinema. They reached their professional peak during the 1960s; but by the late ‘70s, Shin’s financial problems and troubles with the then-totalitarian South Korean government had stalled his filmmaking. In addition, his affair with a younger actress had broken up his marriage to Choi, who was also struggling to find work. It was during this time that Choi received an invitation to travel to Hong Kong and discuss a business opportunity—something she wasn’t in a position to pass up.
Unbeknownst to Choi, the offer was a set up by North Korean agents. When she arrived in Hong Kong, an agent led her to a speedboat where a group of men captured her. Upon arrival in North Korea, she was perversely greeted as though she were a celebrity visiting of her own free will. In an interview for the 2016 documentary The Lovers and the Despot, the nearly 90-year-old Choi recalled that photographers took her picture as her captor, Kim Jong-il, stretched out his hand and said, “Thanks for coming.”
Kim was at the time the chief of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department (his father, Kim Il-sung, was still president). He fancied himself a cinephile, publishing the book On the Art of the Cinemain 1973, and reportedly collecting over 30,000 films during his lifetime (including a lot of porn). At the propaganda department, he helmed North Korea’s production of manipulative state films. Yet according to secret recordings that Choi made of Kim after her capture, he was disappointed with these movies and jealous of those coming out of South Korea.
“Why do all of our films have the same ideological plots?” he asked in one of Choi’s rare recordings of his voice. “There’s nothing new about them. Why are there so many crying scenes? All of our films have crying scenes. This isn’t a funeral. Is it? We don’t have any films that get into film festivals.”
Kim desperately wanted North Korean films to receive international recognition, and he thought Shin was the man to improve the country’s film quality. Kim had his agents bring the director to North Korea a few months after Choi, whom Kim may have used to lure Shin. South Koreans still dispute whether Shin was kidnapped or went willingly. In any case, Shin tried to escape once he was in North Korea, and authorities punished him by sending him to a prison work camp.
For five years, Kim held Shin and Choi captive without knowledge of one other. Shin spent those years in prison camps, and Choi spent that time in isolation, not realizing that her ex-husband was in the country. Finally, in 1983, Kim invited the former couple to his birthday party so he could “introduce” them. It was a shocking, emotional reunion. Soon after, Kim put them to work making films at a breakneck pace.
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“In two years and three months, we made 17 films,” Choi said in The Lovers and the Despot. “We only slept two or three hours a night, and worked day and night.”
In a break from previous North Korean cinema, Kim didn’t force Choi and Shin to make films that explicitly promoted the state and its president. Rather, he just wanted them to make films good enough to be shown at film festivals around the world. And he did get a little of what he wanted. Some of these films made it into festivals in the Eastern Bloc.
“I watched most of their films that they made and they’re quite entertaining, actually,” says Suk-Young Kim, a professor of theater, film, and television at the University of California-Los Angeles.
“They’re very, very easy to watch, as opposed to this really regimented, one-dimensional North Korean propaganda,” she continues. “There are a lot of implications of romance and even sex, which was just unheard of in North Korean film. And the characters are much more human, multidimensional; we get to follow their moral dilemma better.”
Choi and Shin traveled to European film festivals under the surveillance of North Korean officers, but were eventually able to evade them at a hotel in Vienna in 1986, after attending the Berlin International Film Festival. Choi and Shin took a taxi to the American embassy, which granted them asylum in the United States. They lived there until 1999, when they returned to South Korea (Shin died in 2006 and Choi died in April 2018).
“Kim Jong-il was very, very upset,” says Professor Kim. “He was outraged by their betrayal, so he did everything possible to erase their trace.” He ended Shin’s practice of giving individual workers credits in films, and also prevented screenings of Shin and Choi’s movies. Because of this, their work didn’t have a direct impact on the propaganda films that came after their escape. It wasn’t until the 2000s, Professor Kim says, that state films began to explore themes that Choi and Shin had tackled, like romance and comedy.
It must have been strange for them to make films in North Korea, Profesor Kim says; not just because they were captives, but also “because reality is highly cinematic and theatrical” in the country. When Kim Jong-il’s father died, for example, citizens who weren’t effusive enough in their public displays of mourning mysteriously disappeared in the night. This led to extremely dramatic displays of sadness in the streets, as people strove to act appropriately distressed.
“In North Korea, films are just an extension of reality,” she says. “You constantly have to play the right roles, say the right things, do the scripted things. The impromptu, improvised action is not very welcome—and there would be grave consequence for it.”