Shin Sang-Ok

Maverick film-maker

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed