The actual abductions of Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok are routine enough. One minute they're in South Korea looking over some shanties (a half year or so between their kidnappings), and the next they're in a freighter, heading on up to North Korea.
It's a quiet ride, with the rest of their time in North Korea proving anything but. A rich detailed account of their time apart and together again with Kim Jong-Il orchestrating it all.
Paperwork and essays are painful in their own right. Here though, your own hand cramps up as they detail how much praise and flowery language they have to construct in writing congratulatory letters to please the Kims (Kim Jong-Il and his father Kim Il-Sung). The underlings and officials of the Workers' Party keeping Choi and Shin captive are ever present, dogging their every move. It's claustrophobic and tense. The hopelessness of ever leaving, real.
“There was no way to escape,” Shin finally had to concede. “There just wasn't any way.”
Churning through the chapters is an easy thing and you're blowing out another night, hooked as you are, either by what punishment or hoops befall the pair, or of what other peculiar insight peels back the regime's veneer. Harrowing is the start of things, and it continues to take a pulse.
There's a lot of detail in the pages, and the more it goes on about the Democratic People's Republic of Korea the stranger it gets. The torture, the culture, the citizens taking great pains to dob on each other. The Hermit Kingdom is full of state grown paranoia, and not once does that let up between the chapters.
There might be glimmers, taking a breath here or there, but then you're still looking over your shoulder. You're still sussing out if the guard or neighbour is trying to be compassionate or just ferreting out more information for proof that you're lying and aren't fawning over both Great Leader and Dear Leader as much as you should be.
What Choi and Shin go through, in their own words and parsing out news articles and cross-checking, allows Paul Fischer to paint excitement in the mundane and excruciating experiences of the couple. Matter-of-fact in the reporting, a vacuum of time exists to put the eight year ordeal in a stand still and yet fly by so quick.
Pathetic, even sympathetic at times, Kim's grasp on reality and power is tenuous, maddening and all-consuming. Who knew the dictator was such a film buff? The lengths and resources used to procure (bootleg) films from around the world while North Korean citizens are allowed only to watch the slop and dreck from their own film industry plays into the broader theme of perception and controlling the message. Try all you want, it'll run away from you eventually.
“Darling,” she said, “we have acted and directed the lives of others in films. From no on, let's act and direct our lives ingeniously.”
There's a healthy dose of suspicion in the government running on both sides of the 38th parallel north. South Korea gets no favours in their political swings, making North Korea only look like what happens when you lean too far to one side. Freedom of expression is on a tooth's edge here, not sure which Korea makes off the better part for it. With Kim's propaganda machine allowing Shin the vitality to make films again, it's a hard line to take apart.
A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power is a delicious plate of the strange and horrible machinations that rule North Korea and how a South Korean power film couple survive it. And they barely did.
The publisher provided a review copy.
Reviewed on Sunday, 1 February 2015