[Originally Published on Needless Things in June 2016]
A future dictator who was a film buff, a famous director and his movie star wife, an entire film crew who had no idea what they were really being hired to do or who was really hiring them, an at best okay film made amazingly more interesting to watch the more you learn about its creation, and a story that seems almost unreal.
You know how in high school they would put the word *SEX* in big letters on a poster before doing that gag about how they now had your attention? The above headline is nothing like that gag. 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 the strange little film Pulgasari and the circumstances around its creation only to be met with blank stares from many in the room. Now, I expect that kind of response in my workplace, but at a gathering of geeks who are into this kind of thing? Apparently, the story is not as well-known as I had thought it was. If you’ve never heard about it, let’s rectify that now.
Shin Sang-ok was a South Korean filmmaker with an impressive resume behind him. Unfortunately for him, he also had 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 most of 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 and in film. He even wrote a book about it. It was his belief that the right films could propel the message of North Korea’s beliefs throughout the world. However, 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. However, this was only after some fairly cruel torture. Most of these were typically well received smaller films more grounded in reality. He built up trust with the powers that be, but they still kept a tight rein on him when it came time to promote the films, rarely allowing both him and his wife to appear at premiere events outside of the country. One was always kept as a hostage to ensure the return of the other. Trust was also built with the people he had to work with- his North Korean crew of filmmakers -to make these films.
In later years he would speak somewhat well of the people he had to work with. He found most of them to be genuinely 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- and crazier -schemes 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? He knew from conversations with Shin Sang-ok that the home grown crews weren’t up to the task. The answer, he thought, was a simple one. He just had to have 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 would work with what limited resources 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 and dangerous risk for the couple. 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 maybe some not so discrete criticisms of the North Korean government, Kim Il-sung himself, and the political and social philosophies that had crushed the country. Fortunately for him and his wife, the ego of the leadership blinded them to these moments in the film. They were the great and beloved 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 were shoddy. It was made in the 1980s, but it looked like it could have been made in the early 1970s. However, it was a legitimate buzz success when released in North Korea as well as even getting some outside of North Korea. This buzz became Shin Sang-ok’s desperate 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, as noted earlier, they had always been accompanied by a small company of armed guards with one of the couple 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 eventually 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.
Since the original writing of this article, there has been a documentary made about the abduction of the couple. It, like the book, focuses on their entire time in North Korea, not just the making of this movie, and is worth checking out.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. He has in the past contributed to websites like Needless Things, Gruesome Magazine, and others while occasionally remembering to put up the odd musings on his own blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, on Decades of Horror, and on the Nerdy Laser. He is also a regular co-host on The Assignment: Horror Podcast as well as the primary writer for its affiliated blog.