FILM / Stranger than fiction: Shin Sang Okk, the Korean director, has survived it all: dictatorships, prison, Cannes. By Sheila Johnston

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The Independent Culture
Few contemporary film-makers can plausibly claim to have lived through interesting times. These days, directors grow up nursing their allergies (Scorsese) or crying over Dumbo in suburban Arizona (Spielberg), or shuttling placidly from film school to darkened cinema to video store (just about everyone). There are exceptions: Roman Polanski, Oliver Stone, who has squeezed much media mileage out of his stint in Vietnam, and of course all the Chinese crowd. And the Korean director Shin Sang Okk, whom few here will have heard of, but whose life, truly, has been stranger than fiction.

I call him 'Korean' advisedly, since Shin has batted for both teams. He has locked horns with Park Chung Hee, South Korea's former ultra- right-wing President, and has been the reluctant guru of Kim Jong Il, eldest son of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's Communist dictator (and the latest bad guy on the international scene). He entered North Korea with a sack over his head and in a chloroform daze, and defected in a John Le Carre-like taxi dash to the American Embassy in Vienna. And he tried to make the film which subsequently became Rambo . . .

Shin began his career in the South and, by the mid-Seventies, had become a one-man industry, having directed over 60 films, produced another 200 and been noted on the international scene. But then things took a turn for the worse. A military coup propelled Park to power. Shin led the fight against censorship, became non grata and was forced to take his services elsewhere. In 1978 he was in America, mulling over a book called One Man Army (later filmed as Rambo), when his wife, and shortly afterwards Shin himself, was lured to Hong Kong and kidnapped by the North Koreans. Her boat was hijacked on a pleasure trip; he was abducted from his car. Mr Shin spent several years in a prison camp before being summoned by Kim Jong Il and charged with revamping the North Korean film industry.

'Kim Jong Il was a very big fan of mine; he owned a print of every film I had ever made,' says Shin, a cheerful man who looks a lot younger than his 68 years. 'There were different ways of addressing people; the most common is 'comrade'. But Kim called me 'teacher'.'

One recent profile, in the Mail on Sunday, described Kim Jnr as a fat, balding blob of debatable sanity, but Shin remembers him with surprising fondness. 'He was always involved in the arts; he studied music, opera and film. There were definitely common grounds for communication.' Kim would not be the first politician / film buff: Stalin had his own private screening room, Goebbels took a keen interest, and Lenin once said famously that cinema is the most important of all the arts. 'Not only did Kim have exactly the same idea, he also learned to use cinema for propaganda much better. There's another quote from Lenin, 'For the sake of the revolution you can even steal', which Kim believed very much: that's why he was able to kidnap us without feeling guilty.'

'He had a huge private library of films, from Birth of a Nation to East of Eden - over 20,000 titles. He didn't make them available to anybody else, although eventually I was able to convince him that, if you really want to create an internationally competitive film industry, you have to teach your students and let them watch these movies.

'The films I directed there may seem not very avant-garde to Westerners, but to North Korean viewers the subjects and style were very new and free and revealing. Before I went there, actors weren't allowed to kiss on screen. Every single movie had to contain a phrase to the effect that Kim Il Sung was a God-like individual. And there were no credits at the end - you had no idea who the director or actors were. It just said 'a film by Kim Il Sung.' They didn't want any other name to be known.'

After his release from prison, Shin says, 'I was treated extremely well. Whatever I wanted was given to me. Even my movies were uncensored, although I always tried to stay within the limits.' He now claims one film he made there, about a toy which comes to life and spins out of control, is an allegory of the nuclear bomb.

None the less, and although Shin and his wife had officially declared that they had gone to North Korea voluntarily, they were all the time planning their escape. They were allowed abroad, but always with masses of bodyguards: it was not till 1986 that an opportunity arose in Vienna while discussing co-productions in the West. Shin told his minders he had to appear a free agent, and struck out on his own in a taxi, slipping the driver a large bribe to shake the car on his tail . . . And he managed to con the Kims into opening a dollars 2.3m account in his name at the Bank of America. (Later Shin returned the money: 'It was worth it to buy my freedom.')

Today he is based in the West where he has made two movies: the latest one, Vanished, was premiered at Cannes and dramatises the brutal events that followed South Korea's military coup. It's an unassuming action film, but a hard-hitting one: Variety called it 'a forceful and courageous condemnation of political corruption inside the top reaches of the South Korean government'. It has been released there, Shin says, 'in a heavily censored version. But it's better to let people know this existed in some form than not at all.'

Vanished is also tough on America and the CIA: 'I principally wanted to show that their fear of Communism and their need for security are much greater than their protection of human rights. The South Korean government is concerned about my film, the North Korean government is concerned about it, it hasn't been released there yet but I certainly hope the American government won't be concerned about it.'

Shin would now like to make a companion piece about his adventures in North Korea. One confidently believes it. HE IS A SURVIVOR, concludes his biography, in capital letters. HE IS AN INDEPENDENT. AND, ABOVE ALL, HE IS A FILM-MAKER.

(Photograph omitted)

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