Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and maybe even an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnaped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and A Young Dictator’s Rise To Power
by Paul Fischer
Flatiron Books, 2015
Carpe Librum might seem like a bit of a departure from our NC theme. However, given the significance of the film industry to North Carolina’s economy from 1984 until 2015, perhaps not. I have a tendency to get Jock books about the film industry.
He came to Wilmington as a gaffer with Dino DeLaurentiis when the movie studio was first built in the early 1980s. But he had been working in film for well over a decade by that time. His taste includes everything from Janus Film to Roger Croma. So Akira Kurosawa’s memoir was part of his Valentine’s Day celebration (yep, we really are a pretty geeky couple when you get down to it).
When “A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnaped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and A Young Dictator’s Rise To Power” materialized in the book store, I brought it home to Jock. It seemed right up his alley. Once I cracked the cover, however, I was the one who couldn’t put it down.
Paul Fischer tackles a fascinating and crazy story, and using his background in filmmaking, writes a captivating narrative. Actually, encore readers who have read any of Anghus Houvorus’ (encore’s film reviewer) fiction will find many similarities. They both come out of a cinematic background and write in a cinematic style.
The book opens with South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok, known in the US as “Simon Sheen”—the producer of the “3 Ninjas” kids’ movie with Disney. He wakes up in a prison hospital in North Korea after a hunger strike. Shin was one of the most famous film directors in South Korea and he married Choi Eun-hee, the actress who seems to be the Korean equivalent of Marilyn Monroe and Meryl Streep rolled into one powerhouse of a performer. Like many film marriages, their personal lives were closely linked to their professional fortunes, and their celebrity played out in the South Korean press with great excitement, including their divorce.
As business declined, Choi traveled to Hong Kong where she was kidnapped by North Korean agents and taken to Kim Jong-Il. Shin searched for her and held a press conference where he stated his belief she had been abducted by North Korea. Shortly thereafter, the same fate befell him.
For years they were kept separate from each other. Choi played the part demanded of her, but Shin attempted twice to escape—each time ending up in increasingly more awful prison conditions. Finally, Kim Jong-Il personally reunited them and pronounced them remarried. Next, they were to start a film production company with the express purpose of making films that could compete at the major European film festival and bring awards to North Korea—all while fulfilling the ideological demands of the dictatorship.
Under Shin and Choi’s tenure North Korean cinema changed forever: the first onscreen kiss, the use of multiple camera angles, shooting locations outside of North Korea, and non-North Koreans playing foreigners on film are just a few of the innovations introduced. Film-watching was compulsory for the North Korean citizenry but they had never seen anything like this, and most of the population had never seen an image of anything beyond their own borders since 1945. Internationally, Shin and Choi’s film received acclaim and awards. Eventually, they were able to orchestrate an escape to the US embassy while in Vienna, but that is not the end of their story.
Fischer’s book does a remarkable job of putting the growth of Asian cinema in the 20th century into a comprehensible context for Westerners. Without getting lost in the minutiae, Fischer takes his audience through WWII, The Korean War, and the partition of the country and specific relationship between Japan and the two Koreas. Then, with a framework firmly in place, he introduces cultural life of all three countries and how they interact.
Readers don’t have to know Kurosawa’s work intimately, but it does help. Even more powerfully, he switches to a second-person narrator (using “you”) for one chapter to illustrate what daily life of a person born into North Kore looks like in the early 1980s. Since most of his story centers around the world of Kim Jong-Il who lives anything but a normal life, the disparity between his inner circle and everyone else really needed to be clearly illustrated in order to understand the three audiences for Shin and Choi’s films: Kim, The North Korean people (who attended films and subsequent briefing sessions about the message of the films on compulsion or faced prison camp), and the artistic circles of European film festivals. That is a complicated triad to please.
For us in North Carolina the arguments about film center on money. With last week’s “One Tree Hill” convention, I watched people pour into the city to spend money here—thrilled to wander around with their Karen’s Café coffee cups from Java Dog. Perhaps the power of what film can be is something we lose sight of in the midst of our daily lives. “A Kim Jong-Il Production” powerfully reminds what film can do on a national and international level, while telling an amazing story of two people’s struggle for survival and a love transcending barriers that defy the imagination.