Split Screen Korea Shin Sang-ok

Split Screen Korea: Shin Sang-ok and Postwar Cinema

Book review

Johannes Schonherr

Shin Sang-ok (1926 - 2006) was a prolific South Korean film director and producer who in the 1960's ran his own company Shin Film, South Korea's largest and most successful film studio. Shin directed and produced films in a vast array of genres stretching from adaptations of classic Korean folk tales to gritty contemporary social realist pictures, from decidedly light entertainment to Manchurian Western (Korean-style "spaghetti western" situated in early 20th century Manchuria).

Today, however, he is most famous for having allegedly been kidnapped and taken to North Korea on the order of film fanatic and later leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il. After directing seven films for Kim Jong-il in the first half of the 1980s, Shin escaped from Kim's clutches during a business trip to Vienna in March 1986.

Shin Sang-ok & Choi Eun-hee at the Pusan Film Festival in 2001.
Shin Sang-ok & Choi Eun-hee at the Pusan Film Festival in 2001 - photograph by Christian Karl.

Much has been written about Shin's alleged kidnapping and his time in North Korea, not least by Shin himself. Though his books have not been translated into English, they formed, along with his numerous interviews, the current perception of Kim Jong-il as the movie maniac dictator and of Shin as Kim's forcefully recruited favorite movie director.

But things were not that simple and Shin was a much more complex person than the still often retold news stories on his escape suggest.

Split Screen Korea.
Split Screen Korea.

Split Screen Korea

Steven Chung, assistant Professor of East Asian studies at Princeton University, took up the work to provide a nuanced and detailed look at all the different stages in Shin's career.

Though Split Screen Korea: Shin Sang-ok and Postwar Cinema is clearly an academic publication, it is written in an easily accessible, straightforward style. Chung explains his theoretical approaches first before employing them in his work deciphering Shin's career through analysis of Shin's films as well through deep research into the historical and economic context in which they were made.

In his first chapter Chung provides a detailed account of the situation of Korean cinema during the time of Japanese annexation and World War II, then moving on into the 1950s where Shin's career started.

Born in Chongjin in today's North Korea into a wealthy family, Shin studied Fine Arts in Tokyo where he developed a special interest in French surrealist films. The Tokyo fire storm bombing campaign in spring 1945 forced him back to Korea, to Seoul where his family had relocated by then.

Shin made his first film The Evil Night in Pusan in 1952, at the height of the Korean War. The area around Pusan was the only part of South Korea that was not overrun by North Korean forces in the early stages of the war.

Shin worked his way up and in the early 1960s, he opened his own studio near Seoul where he employed dozens of other directors and hundreds of actors, technicians etc. to realize his dreams of an industrialized cinema.

Kim Jong Il visiting a North Korean film studio in 1979.
Kim Jong Il visiting a North Korean film studio in 1979.
Scenes from North Korean movies on North Korean banknote issued in 1978.
Movie-mad North Korea - Scenes from North Korean movies on a North Korean banknote issued in 1978.

Political Cinema

Shin always claimed that he was nonpolitical but in the 1960s, he had a close relationship to Park Chung-hee, the dictator of South Korea from 1961 to 1979. Some of Shin's films from the early 1960s can actually be read as propaganda for Park's policies of national development at all costs, especially Rice (1963).

Chung however argues that Shin was driven by his own will to further the speedy development of South Korea and South Korean cinema.

Park was initially a big fan of Shin's work. By the early 1970s, however, the relationship between Shin and Park soured. Park became more and more paranoid and his censorship stricter. Shin's films on the other hand became more and more provocative. The clash between director and dictator led to the closing of Shin's studio by the Park authorities in 1975.

Unable to make his own films, Shin had to work as hired director for other companies - until he disappeared in Hong Kong in 1978. A few months before, his wife and actress Choi Eun-hee had mysteriously vanished in the same city.

Speculation was ripe that they had been kidnapped by North Korea. It took until 1984 that Shin and Choi reappeared again - presenting Shin's first North Korean film at the Karlovy Vary film festival in Czechoslovakia.

Shin made seven more films in the North, all thoroughly analyzed in Chung's book, before Shin and Choi made their famous escape in Vienna.

North Korean VCD cover of Love, Love, My Love, the North Korean remake an earlier South Korean film.
North Korean VCD cover of Love, Love, My Love, the North Korean remake of one of Shin's earlier South Korean films.


Were they actually kidnapped by North Korea or did they willingly relocate there? After all, Shin's studio had been closed in South Korea whereas he was allowed to open his own big studio in North Korea where he was able to produce films again on a grand scale.

It's a debated topic and Chung doesn't have an answer either. Up until the North Korean archives are made public, nobody will know for certain how and why Shin ended up in North Korea. Up to then, only Shin's and Choi's own statements are available - and they had all the reasons to claim that they had been kidnapped. It was their only way to continue their careers in South Korea.

Instead of speculating, Chung researches a really interesting topic regarding Shin's North Korean films: how could Shin's thoroughly capitalist ways of mass entertainment film production translate to the ideologically driven reality of North Korean cinema?

It turned out, Shin's approach translated very well. Shin's North Korean films were hugely successful in North Korea as well as in the countries of the Eastern bloc. Grand-style mass entertainment worked perfectly well on both sides of the ideological divide - with only minor adaptations. Some of Shin's most successful North Korean films were even remakes of movies he had made in the South before.

Still from the North Korean classic, Pulgasari.
Still from the North Korean classic, Pulgasari.
Japanese VHS cover art for Pulgasari.
Japanese VHS cover art for Pulgasari.


Indeed, the film Shin is today internationally most famous for was a North Korean production – Pulgasari. A strange genre hybrid, Pulgasari is a Godzilla-style monster movie set in medieval Korea. Pulgasari, the iron-eating monster, aids a farmer rebellion - before the monster itself becomes a burden for the farmers.

To get the looks and special effects of the movie right, Shin hired the Godzilla special effects staff of Tokyo's Toho studio, the original creators of the Godzilla franchise. Kenpachiro Satsuma, the Japanese actor inside the Godzilla rubber suit throughout the 1980s, was the man inside the Pulgasari monster dress. When the film eventually premiered in Japan in 1998, it became a cult hit.

You can see the full film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCKSR0JArUQ


After Shin's and Choi's escape, they settled in Hollywood and Shin opened an own studio for the third time. Under the name Simon Sheen, he produced a number of light entertainment films, most notably The Three Ninja series.

Though Shin was able to make a number of films in South Korea again, his popularity there had faded and he wasn't able to catch on anymore. Shin died in Seoul in 2006.

The Book

Steven Chung
Split Screen Korea: Shin Sang-ok and Postwar Cinema
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2014 

Johannes Schonherr is the author of North Korean Cinema - A History

Related Korean Cinema Articles

The Great North Korean Picture Show
Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan)

Guide Books on North Korea