As a producer and a director, Shin Sang-ok is responsible for some 100 movies. To Westerners just catching up with the 80-year-old Korean filmmaker’s career, that might seem a daunting number, but Shin doesn’t recommend most of his output. “About 80 of them I made just for money,” he says by phone from Pusan, where’s he’s attending South Korea’s best-known film festival. “I cannot tell which is the worst, but I don’t like many of the films I made in the ’70s.”
Shin and his wife, Choi Eun-hee, will be in town this weekend to introduce Freer Gallery of Art screenings of two of his films from the previous decade, The Houseguest and My Mother (at 2 p.m.Sunday, Oct. 16) and Women of the Yi Dynasty (at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14), both of which star Choi. The director and actress, who divorced in the ’70s, remarried after they shared one of the strangest offscreen adventures in world cinema: In 1978, Choi and then Shin were kidnapped from Hong Kong and delivered to North Korea. Following more than four years of “re-education” in a prison where he ate “grass, rice, and salt,” Shin was brought to the dictatorship’s No. 1 film buff, Kim Jong-il, and told that he would now work north of the border.
Shin made seven films in North Korea before he and Choi made a successful break from their handlers to the U.S. embassy in Vienna, in 1986. Reportedly, these movies include a drama, Runaway, that’s in the tradition of his ’60s style. But the only one that’s been seen outside North Korea is Pulgasari, a Godzilla-like monster movie about a creature that grows bigger from eating iron. Pulgasari battles the evil king, who may embody pre-Communist Korean autocracy but could also be seen as representing the North’s current rulers. Asked if the film is a critique of Kim’s dictatorship, Shin replies simply, “That’s correct.”
Pulgasari flopped when shown commercially in South Korea, but it has acquired a tiny following as a video oddity, with at least a few American devotees. “If it is a cult film, that’s really surprising to me,” Shin says. “The main theme is to abolish all the weapons. If you have weapons, it will kill you eventually. But it seems people here don’t understand the idea.”
Shin’s eight years in North Korea constitute the most curious period in his life, but the director has had other controversial international ties. He studied art in Japan in the ’40s, when Korea was still occupied by Japanese troops. That experience, he says, “influenced my work a lot. Particularly my camerawork, mise-en-scène, and camera angles.”
He also saw Japanese films, and he continued to follow such directors as Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu in subsequent decades, even though Japanese products were banned from postwar Korea. “In the ’50s and ’60s, there was no chance to watch Japanese films in Korea,” Shin notes. “But I made frequent trips to Japan so I could keep up with new Japanese films. There was a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea at the time, but when you make films, there is no such hard feelings. You can watch a Japanese film and maybe imitate it a little bit. It wasn’t a problem.”
The director concedes the link that some observers have made between his work and that of the Japanese masters. “If they found a similarity between Mizoguchi and Ozu and my films,” he says, “it is a correct understanding.”
Both of those filmmakers are known for their concern with the plight of women, which is also the theme of The Houseguest and My Mother and Women of the Yi Dynasty. The former, made in 1961 and set during that era, is the tale of a young widow who falls in love with the painter who moves into a spare room but cannot marry him because she effectively belongs to her mother-in-law. Such Confucian notions of women’s obligations are even stronger in the latter film, made in 1969 and set in the 14th century. The movie tells three stories—a fourth was filmed but doesn’t survive—of women who can escape their rigid roles only through death, whether real or simulated.
“Confucianism was destroying Korea,” Shin explains of his native land in the ’60s, “and the plight of women is one of the central issues of Confucianism. Or the problem of Confucianism. That’s why I wanted to explore the issue in those films.”
Along with 1964’s Sam Ryong the Mute (shown last week at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center) and 1968’s The Eunuch, the two films being screened at the Freer are among Shin’s favorites of his own work. “Those were my first works,” he says. “I like my earlier works better.” Initially, he recalls, “I was surprised when those films were shown abroad. I thought maybe they were a hard sell, because of the different values between Korea and Western countries. But every time, they liked it.”
Although Shin opted to speak Korean and use an interpreter for this interview, he does know English, and phrases such as “hard sell” come naturally to him. In the ’70s, he produced action movies in bilingual Hong Kong, and after escaping North Korea he settled in Hollywood, where, under the name Simon S. Sheen, he directed one and produced four movies in the Three Ninjas series.
His goal was not only cash—“I can say only that I still like those films because they still make money,” he remarks of his work as Sheen—but also to ease his way back to South Korea, where some suspected that his kidnapping was actually a defection. Shin had chafed under censorship in the ’70s, and the South Korean government had shut down his production company in 1978, not long before he disappeared. (Shin’s detailed descriptions of his sufferings in North Korea, along with a recording Choi surreptitiously made of Kim Jong-il, have convinced most skeptics that the two really were abducted.)
Shin is one of the few directors who can, from firsthand experience, compare movie production in four very different countries, ranging from dictatorial North Korea to colonial Hong Kong to his liberalized homeland. “The good thing about North Korea is, you don’t need to worry about money. At all,” he says. “In Hong Kong, you have a lot of good locations. They’re easy to find. And the Hollywood system is quite good. The problem is the star system. That’s why I made kids’ films, which don’t rely on the star system.”
As for South Korea, he concludes—without apparent irony—that “filmmakers make films without any social consciousness. They only make films for money. That is the current problem.”