Sunday, December 27, 2015

Book Review: A Kim Jong-Il Production

A Kim Jong-Il Production (Rakastettu Johtaja Ylpeänä Esittää)
by Paul Fischer
translated to Finnish by Aura Nurmi
Atena Kustannus, 2015.
This review is based on the Finnish hardback edition.

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il was a serious film buff who went seriously off the deep end. To please his father Kim Il-sung he started making a cult of personality around him with ordering production of heroic tales about North Korean heroes struggling against evil foreign capitalist dogs. Foreign countries were depicted as hell and it was always shining in North Korea. Kim Il-sung was depicted as mythical religious figure. State had full control of the citizens and no one else than Kim Jong-Il was allowed to watch foreign movies. To get films he ordered ambassadors to get him pirated copies of just about every film produced. He had a collection of about 20000 movies and his favourite films were James Bond films, "The First Blood" and "Friday the 13th."

The movies were made for propaganda purposes and for making the people work harder for the communist system. As the film makers in North Korea were rigorously controlled and punished severely for breaking the rules, the quality of North Korean movies was poor and the plots were repetitive and dull. In the 1970s Kim Jong-Il was running a huge organized crime and terrorist operations to get funds for his excessive lifestyle. With techniques learned from James Bond-films many people were kidnapped and forced to work in North Korea. In 1978 two South Korean film makers director/producer Shin Sang-ok and his actor ex-wife Choi Eun-hee were kidnapped by commandos and sent to North Korea. After attempts to indoctrinate them they were forced to make movies that would raise the quality of North Korean cinema.

Shin Sang-ok rebelled against the kidnapping and he tried to escape twice. As the result he was thrown into prison and tortured for years. Finally he decided to play along and act like a reformed man who has realised how awesome the Kims were. In reality he and Choi were always trying to find a way to escape.  Shin and Choi were given rather free hands to make movies. Although Shin's career had started strong he had angered the South Korean politicians mocking censorship and his career was over when the kidnapping occurred. Shin hid some critique against the North Korean system into his films but that went unnoticed because Kim Jong-Il liked the films. After making some critically acclaimed films, they were given lease to shoot films in East-European countries. Finally they made "so bad it is good" version of "Godzilla": "Pulgasari." Shin and Choi did not stay to see the film's success in North Korea as they had already escaped. Ironically the hardships took away some of Shin's egoistic characteristics and Shin and Choi found their love again. However Shin's career as director never fully recovered, the highlight being "3 Ninjas Knuckle Up."

In his book Paul Fischer gives a unique perspective of North Korea showing Kim Jong-Il's movie fanaticism as the main driving force of his internal politics. Kim is depicted as charismatic but capricious party animal who executes people at whim. Favoured persons are elevated and then destroyed when they fail Kim. Kim is compared of crazed movie producer or director who was using all the citizens as extras in Kim Jong-Il-show and North Korea as his stage. Those who do not fit their role are cut off. Keeping the borders closed and forcing the people believe absurd things Kim brainwashed the whole nation. The people are kept in dark while the party officials overindulge. However watching smuggled foreign movies is slowly eroding the people's faith in the North Korean system. Also the biographies of Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee are told in detail. The book is enjoyable reading, stylistically like combination of spy thriller and history. Fischer does a impressive job trying to separate the rumours from the facts.

Rating: Very good

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