As we celebrate Asian Heritage Month, I decided to check out a book that might shed some light on the history of North Korea, an isolated country shrouded in secrecy: A Kim Jong-Il Production: the extraordinary true story of a kidnapped filmmaker, his star actress, and a young dictator’s rise to power by Paul Fischer.
This book tells the incredible story of the lengths to which dictator Kim Jong-il was willing to go in order to improve the North Korean film industry: by kidnapping prominent filmmakers from South Korea. Shin Sang-ok, South Korea’s most famous director, and Choi Eun-hee (“Madam Choi”), a renowned actress who starred in many of Shin’s movies, were a formerly-married couple who had fallen on hard times in South Korean film industry. They were separately kidnapped, held in North Korea for a decade, and forced to make propaganda movies for Kim Jong-il after undergoing years of imprisonment and attempted brainwashing. Eventually, they gained Kim Jong-il’s trust and managed to stage their escape to Vienna in 1986. It really does sound like something out of a movie plot, and indeed, an upcoming documentary called The Lovers and the Despot will cover their story.
What I really appreciate about this book is not only the amazing fortitude of Choi and Shin but also the insights they and others are able to give us about what it was like living in North Korea: the staggering wealth inequality where Kim Jong-il owns countless luxury mansions while many of his people starve. I was stunned by the contrast between Jong-il’s lavish parties with personal entertainment while political prisoners are fed soup filled with rocks and forced to sit perfectly still for sixteen hours a day or be beaten. The book emphasizes that kidnappings to North Korea happened on a frequent basis, and once you were there, it was almost impossible to escape from the country. But the main message is Jong-il’s obsession with reinforcing his family’s regime through the power of film. The movies became one of Jong-il’s main tools in building and maintaining a national identity from worship of his father, Kim Il-sung, to himself and beyond.
This might help to explain the extreme reaction to the political satire film The Interview, starring Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Randall Park as Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un. Sony Picture’s theatrical release of the film was eventually cancelled due to threats of violence from hackers linked with North Korea, which unfortunately may have a chilling effect on future films satirizing North Korea.
Those wanting more satirical films could try the 2005 film Team America: World Police, made by the creators of South Park. Here, Kim Jong-il is made to look particularly ridiculous—but then, so is everyone else parodied in the movie, whose actors, amusingly, are marionettes.
While comedy films may invite us to mock the dictators of North Korea, we must remember the actual harm done to the everyday citizens who suffer under the regime, which seeks to suppress the free thought of its people and can have them and their entire families thrown into prison without a trial or even an official charge. The documentary Kimjongilia: the flower of Kim Jong Il shares appalling firsthand stories from six former detainees: survivors of the horrors of the prison system, sexual slavery, torture, mutilation, and starvation. While the inclusion of interpretive dancers distracts from the accounts, the harrowing tales have undeniable power.
For another documentary about North Korea, try National Geographic’s Inside North Korea, with correspondent Lisa Ling. She traveled to the elusive country by posing as part of a medical team under Dr. Sanduk Ruit, a Nepalese eye surgeon whose goal was to spend 10 days doing 1,000 surgeries to remove cataracts from North Korean citizens—including many children—who had become blind due in part to malnutrition, a chronic problem in the country. While unfortunately, the team was constantly monitored by government officials, simply gaining access to Pyongyang was quite a feat. One amazing scene in particular showed how strong Kim Jong-il’s cult of personality had become: when those who had been blind finally had their bandages removed, rather than thank the doctors standing there, each of them instead profusely thanked the pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on the wall.
Finally, try A State of Mind. The creators of this fascinating documentary were given unprecedented access to two young Pyongyang gymnasts who work tirelessly to bring glory to their country. Pak Hyon-sun (age 13) and Kim Song-yon (age 11) spent months training for the Mass Games, a gloriously colourful performance that requires up to 80,000 gymnasts in the floor display and 12,000 schoolchildren for the floor backdrop. The purpose of the Mass Games is to celebrate the unity of the people and the glory of the state and leader. While the spectacle of the Games was beautiful, perhaps more interesting were the scenes of relatively privileged everyday life in the capital city, including ubiquitous power cuts and accordion performances. These scenes help to humanize the people living in North Korea and remind us that they are doing the best they can to make a living in an oppressive environment.