Kidnapped: The Strange Cinematic Life Of Shin Sang-ok

Surely few directors in film history can have experienced such dramatic swings in fortune as Korean master Shin Sang-ok. Born on the northern part of the Korean peninsula in 1925, he studied surrealist art at the Tokyo Arts University in the early 1940s until the firebombing of Tokyo by U.S. warplanes forced him to move to Seoul. His first experience in the film industry was in the art department on Choi In-kyu's classic Hurrah! Freedom (1946). He debuted as a director during the Korean War, with his first production Evil Night halted in mid-shoot due to the Northern army's advance (he finished it two years later, in 1952). During the war he also fell in love with and married film star Choi Eun-hee, who had a supporting role in Evil Night and would go on to appear in many of his films. By the late 1950s, Shin and Choi were turning out a series of hit films that would establish their reputation.
The height of their influence came in the 1960s, when Shin produced a number of award-winning classics while also heading Korea's largest film company Shin Film. At its peak, the company employed over 300 people and turned out 25 films per year. Shin was also active in pushing film exchanges with Hong Kong, directing four HK-Korea co-productions himself and producing several more.
Nonetheless, by the 1970s Shin had fallen out of favor with Korea's authoritarian president Park Chung-hee. His film empire began to crumble, and harsh censorship made it almost impossible for Shin to direct films on his own terms. In 1975, his permission to work in the film industry was revoked by the government. Then, according to Shin's own testimony, his wife disappeared on a trip to Hong Kong in 1978. He came following in her footsteps in the hope of finding her, but in an alley one day a bag was thrust over his head and he lost consciousness.
Choi and Shin had been kidnapped by North Korean agents, and brought to Pyongyang on Kim Jong-il's orders in the hopes of reviving the film industry there. They spent the first five years in separate jails after refusing to cooperate, but eventually they were reunited, and once again began to make films together. After shooting seven features and receiving various festival awards (a Best director prize at Karlovy Vary for An Emissary of No Return in 1984, and a best actress award for Choi Eun-hee at Moscow in 1985 for Salt), the two escaped during a trip to Europe, requesting asylum at the American embassy in Vienna. They then moved to Hollywood, where Shin worked as a producer on the Three Ninjas series under the name Simon Sheen. In these years he also directed several more films in South Korea.
In recent years, his work has achieved an increased level of exposure around the world, with major retrospectives held at the Pusan International Film Festival in 2001 and at New York's MoMA in 2002. Enlightenment film The Evergreen (1963) was also given a special screening at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Sadly, Shin died of liver failure in 2006; his wife, now 82, still lives in Seoul.  
Shin's filmography scales great heights, but is admittedly uneven, partly because throughout his career he was constantly pushing into new territory. He took on the dual role of producer and director from his very first film, and in this capacity he pioneered forays into new genres, new filmmaking technologies (his Sung Choon-hyang from 1961 was Korea's first Cinemascope production in colour) and ambitious special effects (as in the 1964 war film Red Muffler). He was a man of all trades, serving on various productions as cinematographer, editor, art director, and screenwriter. Of all Korean filmmakers, he was also one of the most cosmopolitan, with his work displaying influences from Kurosawa to Italian Neo-realism. Meanwhile he was accustomed to pushing the envelope in terms of social mores, from the brazenly controversial A Flower in Hell (1958) to the sexually explicit (for its time) Eunuch (1968).
It was this energy that distinguished Shin's work from that of his contemporaries. Kim Ki-young may have been a genius, and Yu Hyun-mok may have been more of an intellectual, but Shin Sang-ok combined a keen understanding of his audience with a passionate desire to develop local films. When reading through the history of Korean cinema in the 1960s, one sometimes gets the sense that Shin was dragging the rest of the industry behind him.
This mini-retrospective focuses on Shin's films from the late 1950s, a group of works that (with the exception of the widely applauded A Flower in Hell) have been comparatively overlooked in previous retrospectives. Nonetheless it was a crucial and very distinctive stage in Shin's career which established Choi Eun-hee as a top star and which provided the momentum for Shin's rise to fame and power in the early sixties.
The selected films include the smash hit A College Woman's Confession (1958), about a woman who enters into an elaborate deception in order to put herself through law school; A Sister's Garden (1959) in which an upper-class woman is thrown into poverty after the death of her father, and forced to take up work as a bar girl; It's Not Her Sin (1959), in which an unwanted pregnancy leads to an intimate but tense collaboration between two women; and Shin's legendary A Flower in Hell (1958), about a man from the country seduced by his older brother's girlfriend, a prostitute who caters to U.S. soldiers.
Shin's films from this era may be less flamboyant and slower in their development than his 1960s' classics, but the cumulative emotional force of these works is often stronger. This energy reflects the chaotic uncertainties of the post-war period, when Seoul and other cities were still being rebuilt and society was breaking free from many of its old traditions and values. Women's lives in particular had been turned upside down, with rapid modernisation seeming to offer new opportunities at the same time as the breakdown of old social codes exposed them to new dangers.
The four works mentioned above could all be described as women-centered melodramas. Nonetheless, as is typical of Shin's works, they are also influenced by genre, for example in the chase sequence at the end of A Flower in Hell or in the noirish trappings of It's Not Her Sin. In his quieter dramatic sequences as well, Shin showed himself to be adept at creating tension, such as in the middle section of A College Woman's Confession, when the lead character's whereabouts and intentions remain unclear.  
More than anything, the films are dominated by the complex persona of Choi Eun-hee, who captured better than any other actress the range of dilemmas, new social roles and tragedies faced by women in the tumultuous post-war period. The Korean War had broken up homes (sometimes leaving family members on opposite sides of the South-North border), produced an estimated 390,000 widows (who faced social pressure not to remarry), and drawn massive numbers of women into the work force. At the same time Korea, which was in the midst of a massive rebuilding effort, was rapidly modernising -- a phenomenon encouraged by the amount of economic aid coming from the U.S. and the presence of American troops in Seoul and other cities. (In1957 there were an estimated 40,000 Korean prostitutes catering to U.S. soldiers.) Young people were quick to embrace the new consumer culture of the West, from dances to fashion and music, however other sectors of Korean society viewed the changes going on around them with alarm. Inevitably, the battles over the preservation of traditional social mores versus the adoption of a more individualistic modern culture were fought over women.
Female viewers of this era found in Choi Eun-hee a character who embodied the increased complexity of women's lives. The image she projected was slightly different in each film, but the characters were familiar: a widow in Dongsimcho (1959), a prospective lawyer in A College Woman's Confession, a fallen bar girl in A Sister's Garden, and (most controversially) a prostitute in A Flower in Hell. She played the role of the "everywoman" of her time, and yet at the same time she was hardly average. Even in her more conservative roles she came across as a distinctly modern figure -- one who was facing life's challenges with strength of character and intelligence. In some ways she represented the best qualities of the new modern culture.
Viewers were aware that her own life had been as eventful as many of her films. At the age of 17, against the wishes of her father, she ran away from home to pursue a career in the theatre. She made her film debut in 1947 with A New Oath, and fell in love with and married the cinematographer Kim Hak-seong. Just a few years later, however, she would divorce him to marry Shin. In another era, the resulting scandal could have potentially affected her career, but given that it took place against the destabilizing backdrop of the Korean War, audiences tended not to hold it against her. Film magazines of the time emphasized her domestic skills and her devotion to Shin.
By the late fifties, Choi and Shin were ascending to the top of the film industry. After gradually building fame throughout the decade, Choi appeared in 8 films in 1958 and another 12 in 1959. For Shin's Dongsimcho (1959), she received a record-breaking fee of two million hwan. This was an era in which the phenomenon of film stardom was spreading quickly, partly thanks to the success of Korea's first film magazines. Shin himself also aggressively marketed Choi and the other stars in his stable. The two great corporate rivals of the era were Seonmin Film Company, which had famous screen couple Kim Ji-mi and Choi Mu-ryeong under contract, and Shin Sang-ok Productions with Choi and actor Namgung Won.
For Shin himself, the road to success had been somewhat bumpier. He had received critical praise early for his now-lost debut film Evil Night (1952), which like A Flower in Hell centered on a so-called "Western princess" (a prostitute catering to U.S. soldiers). The Buddhist-themed Dream (1955), which Shin says had been partly inspired by Rashomon, was also well received -- though unfortunately no print survives of this film either (it was later remade in 1967). But it wasn't until the historical drama Youth (1955) that he received a certain degree of box office success. Shin then tried to parlay this into a second hit with Shadowless Pagoda (1957), another historical drama starring Choi Eun-hee, but the decisive commercial failure of that film brought him back down to earth. A Flower in Hell, his first release of 1958, also failed to attract mainstream interest (despite its fascination for viewers of today).
Contemporaries of Shin say that A College Woman's Confession (1958) was a do-or-die release for the director, given his track record up to that point. Fortunately, however, it was enthusiastically received, enjoying an extended run in theaters (almost a month) and selling 130,000 tickets in Seoul alone. The following year, Dongsimcho and the now-lost melodrama Chun-hee also grossed roughly 100,000 admissions each at the box office, while It's Not Her Sin and A Sister's Garden earned in range of 50,000 admissions.
At the start of his career, Shin had used the financial resources of his brother to launch the production company Shin Sang-ok Productions in 1952 and the distribution company Seoul Films in 1955. However after the commercial success of his late-fifties melodramas, he opened Wonhyo Film Studio in Seoul in 1959 and invested heavily in facilities and equipment. He also expanded the number of stars he had under contract. In the early 1960s he would engage enthusiastically in the promotion of new actors like Shin Young-gyun, the star of his big-budget historical drama Yonsan-gun (1961).
Thanks to his commercial successes and his pro-active efforts to develop the film industry, Shin had become recognized as an industry leader. At the same time, he also made sure he was on good terms with the government, shooting the film Independence Association And The Young Rhee Syngman in 1959 about the formative experiences of then-president Rhee. The broader film industry had entered a period of rapid growth, thanks to tax breaks and other friendly government policies. Whereas South Korea had produced only 15 features in 1955 (including two by Shin), by 1959 there were 111 features produced, and Korean cinema was set to embark on a boom period.
The 1960s would bring some unexpected surprises, however. In April 1960, massive student-led demonstrations against a fixed election forced president Rhee to give up power. A brief window of genuine democracy followed. But in May 1961, an economic crisis would provide the excuse for General Park Chung-hee to seize power in a military coup. Park would rule in an increasingly authoritarian manner over the next eighteen years.
For Shin, meanwhile, the years 1960-61 marked a clear start to a new phase in his career. With the launch of Shin Film and the unprecedented box office success of his Sung Choon-hyang (1961), he was recognised by contemporaries as the industry's leading producer, and arguably its most important commercial director as well. As a result he had resources available to him that he could only have dreamed of in the previous decade -- although new film policies would also place added restrictions on the filmmaking process.
Shin's filmography covers a lot of ground,. There are his "golden years" in the 1960s, his decline in the 1970s, his work in North Korea, and his late period in Hollywood and Seoul. This means that it’s no easy task to fully assess his achievements. To date, a proper monograph on Shin still has not been written in English or Korean, although he is the subject of numerous dissertations. But as time passes, it is becoming increasingly clear that his dramas of the late 1950s have been unfairly neglected, and constitute some of the most dramatically well-formed and topically fascinating works of his career. With this retrospective, we hope to shed some light on these overlooked films, and to broaden viewers' perspectives on the career of this one-of-a-kind director.
Darcy Paquet