Shin Sang-Ok

Maverick film-maker
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Shin Tae-Ik (Shin Sang-Ok), film director and producer: born Chungjin, Korea 11 October 1926; married (one son, one daughter, one adopted son, one adopted daughter); died Seoul 11 April 2006.

The Korean director Shin Sang-Ok is one of the rare figures in film history fated to be better known for his life than for his work. A maverick in the emerging South Korean film industry of the 1950s and 1960s, an aesthetic and technical pioneer who enjoyed both mass-market and critical success, he went on to make seven films in North Korea under the aegis of the leader-to-be Kim Jong-Il - in circumstances that remain highly disputed. He succeeded in defecting to the United States in 1986 and eventually returned to South Korea in 1990.

Shin was born (as Shin Tae-Ik) in 1926 in Chungjin, North Hamgyeong Province (now in North Korea), the youngest of the five children of a herbal doctor. At the time Korea was under Japanese rule and Korean film-making was in its infancy; his childhood enthusiasm for the movies was fed mostly by the French, Japanese and German films allowed in by the colonial government.

Too young to be drafted for service in the Pacific War, he moved to Tokyo to study fine arts at the age of 16 and returned to Korea in 1945, immediately after the Japanese surrender. He found work as the art director on the country's first post-independence film, Jayu Mansae (Viva Freedom, 1946), directed by Choi In-Gyu.

Based in Seoul during the Korean War, he used his own savings and money from his father to found the first of his production companies in 1952. The same year he made his début film, Ak Ya (The Evil Night), now lost. In 1954 he married the country's most famous actress, Choi Eun-Hee, who took the lead in many of his later films; their successes included the neo-realist classic Jiok Hwa (A Flower in Hell, 1958), with Choi as a prostitute amid black-marketeers in Seoul's post-war rubble, and Sarangbang Sonnim-gwa Eomeoni (Mother and a Guest in the Master's Room, 1961), in which Choi played a war widow torn between loyalty to her dead husband and attraction to his best friend.

In the 1960s he became the uncontested leader of the film industry, pioneering the use of sync sound and the CinemaScope format and establishing sageuk (historical dramas) as a viable genre - and as a vehicle for covert political comment. South Korean politics were now pushing towards their darkest phase. Park Jung-Hee (who had seized power in a military coup in 1961) imposed martial law in 1972; he was assassinated in 1979 and replaced (after the brief and very bloody Choi Gyu-Ha interregnum) by the equally dictatorial Chun Doo-Hwan. Park brought the burgeoning film industry under strict censorship and state control in 1961, but Shin's success earned him the right to continue operating independently.

Things started to go wrong for him in 1970. First, his production company collapsed. Then, he was involved in a highly publicised affair with a much younger actress, which led to his divorce. (He and his mistress had two children together.) And in 1975 his licence to produce films was revoked after he reinserted scenes ordered to be cut from his melodrama Jangmi-wa Dulgae (Rose and Wild Dog).

It's at this point that Shin's personal history becomes contentious. In January 1978, Shin's ex-wife Choi Eun-Hee disappeared while working on a film in Hong Kong. Shin went to Hong Kong "to investigate" and himself disappeared in July. Both of them turned up in North Korea and established a new film company in Pyongyang in 1983. The South's National Security Planning Agency issued a statement in 1984 acknowledging that the famous ex-couple had been kidnapped, but Shin issued a counter-statement (under duress, he later claimed) that they had willingly defected to work in the North.

Whatever the truth of the matter, two facts are certain. One is that they made no films of note in Pyongyang; the most prominent was Bulgasari (1985), a botched Godzilla knock-off featuring a monster lizard which eats iron. The other is that they acted out a real-life scene from a spy movie by fleeing their minders and seeking asylum in the US embassy in Vienna on 13 March 1986; they were touring European film festivals at the time.

Back together as a couple, they divided their later years between America and South Korea. Shin's only US credit - billed as "Simon Sheen" - was as a producer on a martial-arts-for-kids adventure, 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up (1995), but he managed to direct three more movies in Seoul, all of them box-office failures. In Mayumi (1990), a film about a notorious North Korean woman terrorist, he tried to assert his now fervent anti-Communism; in Jungbal (Vanished, 1994), he offered a highly theatrical account of the rise and fall of the Park Jung-Hee regime. His last film was Gyeo-ul Iyagi (Winter Story, 2002), dealing with senile dementia.

It was never likely that Shin would be welcomed into the renascent Korean film industry of the 1990s, since he too clearly belonged to an earlier era. But he was honoured in latter years with a tribute screening of Vanished in Cannes, and with retrospectives at the Pusan Film Festival in South Korea and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. At their best, his genre films boast commanding mise en scène and speak to an audience with undiminished power.

Tony Rayns