By Jessica Royer Ocken
When your work hits a wall, it's natural to seek new inspiration. The less natural inclination? Kidnap foreign talent and force creativity out of them at gunpoint. But leave it to movie fanatic Kim Jong Il, North Korea's dictator (and questionable patron of the arts), to prove the exception to the rule. By luring South Korea's greatest cinematic resource north using a chloroform-soaked towel, Kim ushered in North Korea's golden age of film.
Long before his father's death in 1994, Kim Jong Il played supervisor to the North Korean movie industry. As such, he made sure each production served double duty as both art form and propaganda-dispersion vehicle. Per his instructions, the nation's cinematic output consisted of films illuminating themes such as North Korea's fantastic military strength and what horrible people the Japanese are. It was the perfect job for a cinephile like Kim, whose personal movie collection reportedly features thousands of titles, including favorites "Friday the 13th," "Rambo," and anything starring Elizabeth Taylor or Sean Connery.
Kim promptly lured Shin's ex-wife and close friend, actress Choi Eun Hee, to Hong Kong to "discuss a potential role." Instead, she was kidnapped.
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A distraught Shin searched for Choi, but found himself similarly ambushed by Kim's minions. After some "convincing"—by way of some chloroform and a rag—he was whisked away to North Korea. Choi lived in one of Kim's palaces, and Shin—having been captured after an attempted escape only months after arriving—lived for four years in a prison for political dissidents, where he subsisted on grass, rice, and communist propaganda.
In February 1983, Shin and Choi were finally reunited at a dinner party. With little fanfare, Kim commanded them to hug and "suggested" the couple remarry (which they did). Then, they were confronted with their new moviemaking duties—namely, to infuse some life into North Korean cinema and promote government ideals.
Even from beneath a pile of accolades and money, Shin and Choi couldn't stop dreaming of escape. In fact, their "Dear Leader" was building them a mansion and a Hollywood-worthy movie set when the couple went to Vienna to negotiate film distribution rights in 1986. There, Shin and Choi eluded their bodyguards, fled to the American embassy, and pled for asylum. Discussions they'd secretly taped with their executive producer were used as proof that they hadn't gone to North Korea for fame and fortune (as they'd been forced to claim during press conferences), and they were allowed to return home to South Korea.
Shin passed away on April 11, 2006, at the age of 79, and today, Kim Jong Il is back to relying on homegrown talent. He still cranks out 60 movies a year, but has yet to achieve his dream of winning an international audience. Regardless, a sign outside the country's Ministry of Culture reads, "Make More Cartoons"—proof that Kim Jong Il continues to impart his wisdom, and influence, on North Korean filmmakers.
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