October 18, 1926|
Seishin (Chongjin), Korea
|Died||April 11, 2006
Seoul, South Korea
|Other names||Simon Sheen|
|Spouse(s)||Choi Eun-hee (divorced 1976, remarried 1983)|
|Revised Romanization||Shin Sangok|
Shin Sang-ok (October 18, 1926 – April 11, 2006) was a prolific South Korean film producer and director, with more than 100 producer and 70 director credits. His best known films were made in the 1950s and 60s when he was known as the "Prince of Korean Cinema". He received the Gold Crown Cultural Medal, the country's top honor for an artist. He is also known for having been kidnapped by the previous North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, for the purpose of producing critically acclaimed films. He was born Shin Tae-seo: he later changed his name to Shin Sang-ok when he started working in films.
South Korean period (1926–1978)
The son of a prominent doctor of Chinese medicine, Shin Sang-ok was born in Chongjin at the northeastern part of the Korean Peninsula, at the time occupied by Japan, currently a part of North Korea. Shin studied in the Tokyo Fine Arts School, the predecessor to Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in Japan before returning to Korea three years later.
Shin started his film career as an assistant production designer on Choi In-kyu's Viva Freedom!, the first Korean film made after the country achieved independence from Japan. During the "Golden Age" of South Korean cinema in the late 1950s and 1960s, Shin worked prolifically, often directing two or more films per year, earning the nickname the "Prince of Korean Cinema" Shin featured Western princess, female sex workers for American soldiers in The Evil Night (1952) and A Flower in Hell (1958). The production company he started, Shin Films, produced around 300 films during the 1960s, including Prince Yeonsan (1961), the winner of the Best Film prize at the first Grand Bell Awards ceremony, and a Grand Bell Award-winning 1964 remake of Na Woon-gyu's 1926 Beongeoli Sam-ryong.
During the 1970s, Shin became less active, while South Korea's cinema industry in general suffered under strict censorship and constant government interference. Most of the films he directed during the period ended up being flops. After Shin ran afoul of the repressive government in 1978, General Park Chung Hee closed Shin's studio.
North Korean period (1978–1986)
In 1978, Shin's former wife Choi Eun-hee, an actress who starred in many of his films, was kidnapped in Hong Kong and taken to North Korea. Shin himself came under suspicion of causing her disappearance, and when he traveled to Hong Kong to investigate, he was kidnapped as well. The kidnappings were on orders of future leader Kim Jong-il, who wanted to establish a film industry for his country to sway international opinion regarding the views of the Workers' Party of Korea. The North Korean authorities have denied the kidnapping accusations, claiming that Shin came to the country willingly. Shin and Choi made secret audio tapes of conversations with Kim Jong-il, supporting their story.
Shin was put in comfortable accommodations, but, after two escape attempts, was placed in a prison for over 2 years. Once his indoctrination into North Korean ideology was thought complete, he was brought to Pyongyang in 1983 to meet Kim Jong-il and learn why he had been brought to North Korea. His ex-wife was also brought to the same dinner party, where she first learned that Shin was also in North Korea. They re-married shortly afterwards, as suggested by Kim Jong-il.
From 1983 on, Shin directed seven films with Kim Jong-il acting as an executive producer. The last and best known of these films is Pulgasari, a giant-monster film similar to the Japanese Godzilla. In 1986, eight years after his kidnapping, Shin and his wife escaped while in Vienna for a film festival. They managed to seek political asylum from the United States Embassy. Kim Jong-il became convinced that the couple had been kidnapped by the Americans. They lived covertly for two years in Reston, Virgina under American protection. American authorities debriefed the couple about Kim Jong-il and their experiences in North Korea.
Later career (1986–2006)
Shin (and his wife) moved to Los Angeles where he worked in the 1990s under the pseudonym Simon Sheen, directing 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up and working as an executive producer for 3 Ninjas Kick Back and 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain.
At first, Shin was reluctant to go back to South Korea, because he feared that the government's security police would not believe the kidnapping story. He returned to South Korea permanently in 1994, and continued to work on new movies. His last movie as director is Kyeoul-iyagi (The Story of Winter) (2002, unreleased). At the 1994 Cannes Film Festival he was invited as a jury member.
He had a liver transplant in 2004, and died of complications of hepatitis two years later. At the time of his death, he was planning Genghis Khan, a musical. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun posthumously awarded him the Gold Crown Cultural Medal on April 12, 2006, the country's top honor for an artist.
In 2015, an English-language biography of his life (along with Choi Eun-hee) was published by Paul Fischer titled A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker.
Partial filmography as director:
- A Flower in Hell (1958)
- To the Last Day (1960)
- Prince Yeonsan (1961)
- "Seong Chun-hyang" (1961)
- The Houseguest and My Mother (1961)
- The Memorial Gate for Virtuous Women (1962)
- Rice (1963)
- Deaf Sam-yong (1964)
- Phantom Queen (1967)
- Prince Daewon (1968)
- Ghosts of Chosun (1970)
- A Woman with Half Soul (1973)
- The Three-Day Reign (1973)
- Pulgasari (1985)
- Mayumi (1990)
- 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up (1995)
- "Accounting practices blamed for slump in Japanese films" by Kakumi Kobayashi, Japan Times, October 13, 2000, retrieved January 26, 2006
- Biography at asianfilms.org
- "Pleasure and Pain" by Chuck Stephens, The Village Voice, February 27 – March 5, 2002
- Cho, Inēs (2002-01-18). "The Reel Story". Joongang Daily. Retrieved 2013-04-12.
- "The producer from hell" by John Gorenfeld, The Guardian, April 4, 2003, retrieved January 26, 2006
- Obituary The Economist, April 27, 2006
- Paul Fischer (2015). A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker. Flatiron Books. ISBN 978-1250054265.
- Gombeaud, Adrien (December 23, 2000). "A Conversation with Shin Sang-okk". www.koreanfilm.org. Retrieved 2007-05-07.
- Shin Sang-ok at the Internet Movie Database
- The Korea Society Film Journal: Review of "Flowers of Hell"