You know how in high school they would put the word ‘SEX’ in big letters on a poster before doing the gag about how they now had your attention? That headline is nothing like that. Yes, North Korea really did kidnap an entire film crew in order to have them make what one man had hoped would be North Korea’s Godzilla.
I was at ConCarolinas last weekend, and after a panel ended the topic turned to, among other things, Godzilla. I mentioned Pulgasari and got some blank stares from the room. Now, I expect that in my workplace, but a gathering of geeks who are into this kind of thing? Apparently the story is not as well-known as I thought it was. If you’ve never heard about it, let’s rectify that.
Shin Sang-ok was a South Korean filmmaker who had an impressive resume behind him, but a somewhat fading career ahead of him. His wife, Choi Eun-hee, was a very well-known actress in South Korean cinema as well as throughout Asia. In 1978, they were both kidnapped and taken to North Korea on the orders of the head of the North Korean propaganda and agitation department, which included its own reasonably well set up movie production facility. That man, the son of the North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung, was Kim Jong-il.
Kim Jong-il, on top of being the lunatic who would later act as North Korea’s dictator, was one of the world’s biggest film fans. Even when he was young he valued film and the power of film. He even wrote a book about it. It was his belief that the right films would propel the message of North Korea’s beliefs throughout the world. But nothing was working out the way he thought it should with the homegrown talent. His solution, the fix for his problem, was the kidnapping of Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee.
During his time as a prisoner in North Korea, Shin Sang-ok made seven films. This was only after some fairly cruel torture though. In later years he would speak somewhat well of the people he had to work with. He found most of them to be good people, it was just the people at the top- the ones running things –he found to be evil. But no matter what kind words he might have had for some of them, even he would admit that they were limited in some areas of filmmaking skill. This led to bigger issues when it came time to film what Kim Jong-il saw as his great propaganda masterstroke.
Kim Jong-il quite liked Godzilla. He wanted his own Godzilla to be the powerful, iconic symbol of his country’s message and struggle against capitalism and the world. But how could he get the film he wanted? The answer was simple. He just had more filmmakers kidnapped.
He decided he would go after the special-effects team of the original Godzilla films, along with Kenpachiro Satsuma, the man who was often found inside the Godzilla suit. According to Kenpachiro Satsuma, he and his crew members were under the belief that they had been hired for a film project set to be produced in China and produced by a Chinese company. It was more than just a wee bit of a shock to them when they landed in North Korea instead. The conditions they had to work under were even more shocking.
None of the Japanese crew was allowed to communicate with the outside world. Why would they be? While the working conditions were strict and sometimes overseen by armed soldiers, they also had lavish gifts thrown at them to gain their cooperation. Kenpachiro Satsuma would later talk about the odd juxtaposition of these circumstances. People were starving just about everywhere they went, but their immediate surroundings were often as extravagant as could be.
The film crew worked with what they had and turned in their final product to Kim Jong-il’s great satisfaction. The film crew was sent back home, however Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee were kept in North Korea.
That could have been a huge risk for them. Despite Kim Jong-il’s desire for this to be the pro-North Korea propaganda smackdown he’d always longed for with his ministry’s films, the film was loaded with both discrete and not so discrete criticisms of the North Korean government, Kim Il-sung himself, and the political and social philosophes that had crushed the country. Fortunately for both him and his wife, the ego of the leadership blinded them to these moments in the film. They were the great leadership after all, so nothing of that nature in the film could possibly apply to them.
The film itself eventually became a cult classic, but, through no fault of the filmmakers, it’s largely seen as a poorly made film. The effects are shoddy. It was made in the 1980s but looked like it could have been made in the 1960s. However, it was a legitimate buzz success when released in North Korea. It also got notice outside of North Korea, and this became Shin Sang-ok’s last shot at freedom.
He and his wife had earned the trust of the North Korean leadership years earlier, but only to a degree. In order to promote the North Korean film industry, they had been allowed to travel outside the country. This was also a propaganda move to convince the world that they had defected to North Korea years earlier and were willingly staying there. However, they were always accompanied by a small company of armed guards, and one was always kept in North Korea as a hostage to guarantee the return of the other.
With the buzz around Pulgasari, Shin Sang-ok had convinced the leadership that they were both loyal and that having both of them promote the film at an event out of country would be best for the film and the North Korea. Once out of the tight control of their North Korean home of almost a decade, they hatched an impromptu escape plan with the help of a reporter, made their way to the American Embassy with North Korean agents in hot pursuit, and were finally granted asylum in America.
Shin Sang-ok restarted a film career in America, doing films like 3 Ninjas. He and his wife were also under armed protection for a while as Kim Jong-il had ordered that the two of them were to be assassinated. Back in North Korea, Shin Sang-ok’s name was stripped out of the North Korean film industry. Both of their names were removed from any project they had been connected to, and the public and press were ordered to never speak the once popular couple’s names again.
This is the short version of those events. This article barely scratches the surface of what happened during Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee’s time in North Korea or what the Japanese film crew experienced. Hopefully, if you’ve never heard of this before, it’s sparked your curiosity. If it has, check out the following book which can be ordered pretty much everywhere books are sold-
‘A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power’
If it hasn’t quite gotten you fully interested just yet, check out this talk about it from a little while back. They got into a little more detail, but even they’ll tell you that you’ll get a lot more out of the book. Also, you can check out the film itself on YouTube or in the form of various bootlegs that occasionally pop up at the odd convention dealer table. It’s an interesting curiosity in the kaiju genre, and made even more interesting the more you learn about its creation.
Jerry Chandler writes for Needless Things, himself, and whatever else he can find to write for. He watches movies, does the odd convention, and has recently been a guest on the odd podcast here and there. When he realized that (when this goes live) there will only be 84 days left before DRAGON CON, he started to go into his annual panic mode.
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