“Don’t!” she pleads. He doesn’t listen, so Maria, her eyes full of tears, shoots him. Overcome with grief, she drops the weapon and dives into the sea behind him, embracing his corpse and slowly drifting away.”
Back in May, I heard a story by This American Life about people sleeping in the same bed and having separate dreams. In this segment, struggling movie director, Shin Sang-Ok, and his actress wife, Choi Eun-Hee, whose kidnapping was archetypal villainy from a James Bond film, were living together in North Korea. Shin and Choi were brought to North Korea to film movies for Kim Jong-Il, the movie aficionado with the largest movie collection in the world.
I was captivated by A Kim Jong-Il Production as a novel. I was able to finish reading it in less than a week’s time. The book is more than just another novel about North Korea and Kim Jong-Il.
Firstly, the beginning refreshes the reader on the recent history of Korea. North and South Korea were once the same country enduring the same perils of imperialist Japan in the early 21st century. After WWII, and the defeat of Japan, Korea was fractured by the ideologies of the Soviet Union and the United States. From here, the book takes a look at how both countries developed through the eyes of the kidnapped South Koreans.
Secondly, the book profile’s Kim Jong-Il’s rise to become the Dear Leader of North Korea. What’s most interesting about his story, as the title suggests, is that he becomes the “director”. Much like a film director, who has complete control over the actors, scripts, and movie scenes, Kim has puppeteered his way to gain favor from his father and become the successor of North Korea. All of this began while he was young and had full access to the inner workings of the North Korean Party.
In May 1964, Jong-Il graduated from college, and his career in the leadership ranks of the Party, the career that had always been expected of him, began. His first post was as a member of the secretarial staff of the Central Committee, under Uncle Yong-Ju, who took him under his wing and taught him everything he knew about the Party’s inner workings – how personnel was hired, promoted, and demoted; how every department worked and how it reported back to the Leader.
Meanwhile, in his secluded lifestyle, he transgressed into the the prototypical villain out of a James Bond film. Globally, Kim Jong-Il was able to traffic drugs, passports, weapons, and Ponzi schemes which would funnel money back to his personal wealth and fund his extravagant lifestyle. With this accumulation, he was able to throw elaborate parties for his favored guests in order to gain power and control in the North Korean Party.
Jong-Il himself never touched the girls at these functions; nor did he dance or sing. He preferred to sit, drink, smoke his Rothman Royals, and direct. He picked up his baton and conducted the band or encouraged guests to gamble with more panache. Occasionally he did gamble, briefly, always ending up playing a hand one-on-one with the dealer and going all in very quickly … anything the Dear Leader said that sounded remotely like an order was noted down, recorded, and disseminated throughout the Party, immediately becoming an official instruction – whether Jong-Il had said it in sober conversation at 8PM or stinking drunk at three in the morning.
Thirdly, the novel takes a look at the lives of the kidnapped South Korean actress Choi Eun-Hee and film director Shin Sang-Ok, and how they became an object of affection in the eyes of Kim Jong-Il.
Early in their careers, both of them had attained a level of success and admiration in their own rights. The two of them fell in love and were married. Unfortunately, Shin’s true love of film making destroys his marriage and film studio. He struggles financially and must over-exert himself to keep his studio from dissolving. During this period, Kim Jong-Il is made aware of their circumstances. He and his personal secret service device a scheme to lure them out of South Korea.
In North Korea, citizens were forbidden to watch foreign films, actors and actresses weren’t inspiring, and the film studios had no aspiration to create better films. Kim, with his passion for the big screen, would coerce Shin and Choi to help him achieve his aspiring movie talents.
Choi wasn’t sure why Kim had chosen this film to show her first among all others. Maybe he had seen it when younger and always remembered it, or maybe it was the kind of film Jong-Il hoped to make – melodramatic, with big emotions against a dramatic historical backdrop, full of politically approved propaganda but still artful enough to win the second-highest prize at the world’s most prestigious film festival. Choi was pondering this as she stood and Hak-Sun turned the lights back on.
Looking out at the road illuminated by his headlights, ignorant of all of this, Shin felt hardy and optimistic.
He was halfway to China when he came to a fork in the road that he didn’t remember from the map. He picked an option and kept going. It was the wrong one. He found himself driving along on a minor, gravel road. Suddenly someone, perhaps a farmer, appeared in the glare of his headlights and Shin instinctively jerked the wheel. The car skidded noisily and crashed into a ditch. By the time he had extricated himself from his seat the farmer had disappeared. Jumping back in, Shin put the car in reverse and hit the gas. The rear tires spun wildly, the car unmoving.
The novel flows between characters and stories like a side-by-side timeline. The story of Shin and Choi is thrilling as they have lived out their lives in South Korea under the Japanese occupation and live through the transition of South Korea into a diplomatic (yet, also dictatorship) country, all before getting kidnapped. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-Il, the megalomaniac dictator carries out acts of terror and assassination attempts. Then, casually, he retreats to his private movie theater and drinks chardonnay with one of his mistresses. Totally, villainous and all in a day’s work of A Kim Jong-Il Production.