In December 2014, the imminent release of Seth Rogen and James Franco’s idiots-take-North Korea comedy The Interview set off both the Sony Pictures hacking scandal and the terrorist threat that any theaters showing the film would be attacked: “The world will be full of fear,” the hackers wrote. It was still a strange, surreal, largely online controversy that was hard for the average American citizen to see and feel the effects of in their day-to-day life. For me, the clearest example of a world with and without The Interview was when I was walking past a days-in-the-making painted mural advertising the movie in Williamsburg; the day after the film was officially pulled from theaters, that ad was, once again, a white wall.
If The Interview controversy both felt real and utterly surreal at the same time, it’s because that’s how North Korea operates. In Paul Fischer’s incredible new book A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Filmmaker’s Rise to Power, we learn the full story of how Kim Jong-Il, the longtime “Dear Leader” of North Korea until his death in 2011, fell in love with the movies and used them as a form of propaganda, going as far as to kidnap South Korea’s leading director and his wife. It’s a crazy story. It’s hard to believe that it’s all true.
Unlike recent efforts to write about North Korea (see GQ‘s smug but fascinating “I Survived the North Korean Film Festival“), Fischer is diamond-cut sharp on North Korea’s many, many paradoxes, which leads it to be a country both frightening and ripe for parody on a late night talk show. (Or, alternately, the source of a plotline on Tina Fey’s late sitcom 30 Rock — and horrifyingly enough, much of the jokes were based in reality.)
The result is a fascinating and often disturbing look at what storytelling, propaganda, and movie-love can do in service of a country that doesn’t actually serve its people. To wit: storytelling is baked into the very fabric of North Korea — when Kim Jong-Il was born, a double-rainbow parted the skies over the small log cabin he was in. A new star pierced the night. At three weeks, he was walking.
Clearly this story is bullshit, legend, propaganda as to why the “Dear Leader” is so dear, and it paled in comparison to the real guy, who was a layabout bad boy for years, finding something like succor and relief once he found the movies. (But also, it’s mentioned later that he apparently took work like Rambo: First Blood literally, seeing it as a realist documentary…) He was able to access the thrilling cinema denied to his people, including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rosemary’s Baby, and he took that knowledge and applied it to North Korea’s film industry, which was a tool of propaganda. Some of the details are ridiculous — any shot of Japan, for example, had to be rainy, in order to show its misery; North Korea had to be sunny. All work was being done to show the people that North Korea and the Korean Liberation Army was a source of kindness and comfort.
Jong-Il loved the movies so much that he wrote his own book about film, On the Art of the Cinema, and he ended up kidnapping actress Choi Eun-Hee and director Shin Sang-Oak, South Korea’s most famous formerly married film couple — all for the sake of making bigger and better movies. The narrative alternates between absurdist stories (really? Kidnapping actors?) and the scary truths of the torture that went on in North Korea. But strangest of all is the love story underpinning everything — thrown back together again after a relationship that ended in betrayal and heartbreak, Choi and Shin come to rely on each other again in a way that’s very touching. (They ended up in America, and Three Ninjas — remember that series? — was Shin’s idea and property.)
What is great about A Kim Jong-Il Production is that it provides a bright light on a story that feels, too often, dimly lit and complicated. There’s an extraordinary story in here of people surviving against the odds, and the ways in which their art helped them when things looked bleak. I never quite knew what the movies did for Kim Jong-Il — and what Kim Jong-Il did for the movies — and after reading A Kim-Jong-Il Production, I have a deeper understanding of North Korea and the role of storytelling in a grim country. It’s the least we can ask for, in a time when it feels like our borders and our understanding are more porous than ever in the globe; yet North Korea remains an enigma and a target for an easy joke.