The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the world’s most successfully cultocratic country—a Jonestown with 25 million inhabitants living in a condition of enforced zombiedom. But, as intuited by Mads Brügger’s who-is-fooling-whom documentary The Red Chapel, the premise of The Interview, and, even more, North Korea’s post-Interview cyber-attack on Sony, the Stalinoid Hermit Kingdom is also the most extreme version of what the media theorist Mark Crispin Miller dubbed the National Entertainment State.
The notion that cinema rules was never truer than during North Korea’s parallel Reagan Era, when the movie-obsessed heir apparent, Kim Jong Il (aka The Dear Leader), merged his two portfolios, international espionage and studio filmmaking, to abduct South Korea’s most beloved movie star, Choi Eun-hee, and her ex-husband, the noted director Shin Sang-ok, as part of a plan to revitalize the North’s national film industry. Some forcible reeducation was necessary, but as detailed by Paul Fischer in his often mind-boggling historical account A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power, it did work… for a time.
Fischer, a documentary filmmaker who produced Radioman, the 2012 portrait of a former New York City pavement dweller turned professional movie-set-crasher, is sensitive to the state of cinematic mind-meld. Not only did Kim take the James Bond films for docudramas but his captives found themselves living in “a dystopian Hollywood sci-fi film . . . The roads were empty, the buildings broken down and uncared-for. Only the cult of personality was maintained, Kim Il-Sung’s godlike face, painted in golds, yellows, and reds, smiling down from billboards, steles, statues, and mosaics.”
After years of imprisonment, Shin was given his own movie studio where he directed seven features. The most infamous is Pulgasari: The Iron Eater (85), an improvement on Japan’s national mascot in which the fearsome dragon (played by the original rubber-suited Gojiro, Kenpachiro Satsuma) is not a mutant radioactive return of the repressed but a class-conscious People’s Hero. Fischer calls the movie “long, leaden, and dreadful,” although it might be equally described as ludicrous, lively, and demented. In any case, Pulgasari was a monster hit. Audiences trampled all over each other to get into the theater, and the Dear Leader was mightily pleased.
Kim and his political adversaries saw the ravenous monster as an allegorical representation of North Korea’s movie mogul in chief. Although Shin would deny any allegorical intent, his next project was the life of Genghis Khan, which, as recounted by Fischer in full Mission: Impossible detail, the director used orchestrate his and Choi’s defection back to the West with a wild, unfilmable tale to tell.