Fiction was among the supremo’s predilections. His apparatchiks trumpeted his fantastical origin myth – that his humble birth in a log cabin was marked by a double rainbow and bright star – and he engaged in various of the arts. During one two-year run, for example, he composed six operas. He designed a famous Pyongyang landmark. When he joined the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party, he assumed charge of his country’s arts-and-culture administration.
He knew how to live like a rap star: He drank like a fish, delighted in Hennessy VSOP cognac, kept himself well supplied with lobster and champagne, and surrounded himself with knock-out “companions.” And, man oh man, was he a golfer!
He was particularly engaged by cinema. The oevre of Elizabeth Taylor apparently had pride of place in his collection of 20,000 films on tape and disc – everything from Hollywood westerns to Japanese monster movies, and every Academy Award winning movie, or so he claimed. He published often on cinema, including a 70-page 1987 essay titled “The Cinema and Directing” that the BBC’s Mark Savage describes as displaying “surprising insight into the creative process.” (Download it.)
Such was his love of film that in 1975, while the heir apparent to his father and predecessor dictator, Kim Il Sung, he arranged for the kidnapping of leading South Korean film director, Shin Sang-ok, and his wife, Choi Eun-hee, an actress. Nabbed in Hong Kong, they were transported to North Korea wrapped in plastic, and separately imprisoned. Five years later, Kim Jong-Il staged their liberation at a party banquet, but then kept them in house arrest and forced them to make movies for him. Left little choice, Shin and Choi complied; they made seven films before escaping to the West in 1986. (John Gorenfeld discussed Kim’s bizarre plot against Shin on Salon.)
In his autobiography, Shin recalled that Kim, the auteur manqué, complained to him about North Korean directors, saying “’their works have the same expressions, redundancies, the same old plots. All our movies are filled with crying and sobbing. I didn’t order them to portray that kind of thing.’”
The films he had Shin and his wife make while under house arrest included Pulgasarii, a communist spin on Godzilla for which Shin received no on-screen credit, Kim Jong-Il did, as executive producer. It hardly redefined the art form; judge for yourself:
The special effects and “man-in-Godzilla-suit” were oh-so-1950s-B-movie even before they had an opportunity to become dated, noted the BBC’s Mark Savage. Mind you, he added, the battle scenes, with their more than 10,000 extras, “cannot fail to impress.”
Kim Jong-Il clearly viewed himself as a sort of movie-director supreme leader. Through his stooges, he enforced expectations of what North Korean film would be, down to such details as a predominance of military clothing on extras, even the kind of make-up female actors could apply. Of course, he also controlled what appeared in cinemas and on television. And like any testy arts administrator, he did not take well to mockery by his artists. Although a James Bond fan, he called Die Another Day, in which the hero is captured and tortured in North Korea “insulting to the Korean nation.”
Imagine his response, then, to Team America: World Police, in which Trey Parker and Matt Stone depicted Kim Jong-Il as a marionette at a piano keening “I’m so ronerery.”
And his funeral? It was full-tilt Hollywood, observes David Cohen in The Guardian. Its staging owed “much to the Hollywood moves that the Dear Leader so loved,” wrote Cohen, who co-produced a film about North Korea for the French TV station Arte. He writes: “The funeral offered a good lesson in epic film-making. The grand long shots – cars with flashing lights, giant picture of the Dear Deceased carried like the Ark of the Covenant, jack-boot soldiers – were intercut with intimate shots. The grieving son, head bowed, eyes down, hand on the car carrying the coffin, and then weeping faces in the crowd.”
So much dramatic funerary weeping has not been seen, in fact, since they buried Princess Di.
It was seemed some kind of weird projection of Kim Jong-Il’s cinema theory, as presented in his writing on film. Says Cohen: “Kim Jong-il was a narcissistic monster. So perhaps it’s not surprising that he should have had some insight into how Hollywood works.”
– Peter Monaghan