The movie-like life of film director and producer Shin Sang-ok, who led the Golden Age of Korean cinema in the 1960s, revolutionized the North Korean film industry after being abducted to the North, and became a Hollywood film producer after his miraculous escape from the Communist regime.
Shin Sang-ok is one of the few globally renowned Korean film directors of the 1960s. Shin directed nearly 80 films including masterpieces such as “The Flower in Hell” (Ji-oghwa, 1958),“A Romantic Papa” (Romance ppappa, 1960).“Mother and a Guest” (Sarangbang Sonnimgwa Eomeoni, 1961),“Prince Yeonsan” (Yeonsan-gun, 1961),“Seong Chun-hyang” (1961),“The Red Scarf” (Ppalgan Mahura, 1964), and “Daewon-gun “ (1968)” (The number of films he directed differs by record.). He was not merely a film director. He was also the CEO of Shin Films, which produced more than 200 films from the 1950 through the 1970s. Shin was the tycoon of the Korean film industry. During this period, he also co-produced with filmmakers from Hong Kong, paving the way for Korean cinema’s global advance.
Since the late 1960s, he grew more and more distant with the government and in 1975, the license for his film company had been revoked for no specific reason. In January 1978, his wife and actress Choi Eun-hee had been abducted to the North and Shin later in July the same year. The couple’s abduction had been a big issue not only in Korea, but all around the world. From 1983, Shin received full support from Kim Jong-il in directing and producing North Korean films. He won awards at foreign film festivals and significantly contributed to raising North Korean cinema’s global status. After escaping from the North in 1986, Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee produced a number of films in Hollywood in the 90s. The “Three Ninjas” series made a huge hit then. Being introduced as “the one and only film person in the world to make films in South Korea, North Korea, Hong Kong and Hollywood,” In the world of cinema, Shin knew no bounds.
Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee first met in 1953 and grew close while shooting “Korea”(1954) to eventually get married. Choi Eun-hee starred in plays and films since the 40s and was one of the top actresses during the 50s through the 70s. She starred in almost all of Shin Sang-ok’s early, mid, and late works. She also directed 3 films of her own and was also the principal of Anyang Arts High School. She was abducted to North Korea in 1978 along with her husband. After contributing much to the advance of North Korean film, the couple escaped the Communist regime in 1986.
Choi Eun-hee with Marilyn Monroe visiting Korea during the Korean War(1953)
Choi Eun-hee starring in a play(1940s)
Shin Sang-ok learned filmmaking in the late 1940s after Korea had been liberated from Japan from Choi In-kyu, the best technician of the time in Korea. Shin debuted in 1952 with “The Evil Night” (Ag-ya), a story about a prostitute for foreign soldiers.
"From Choi In-kyu, I learned how important editing was and also the importance of technique. If you want to learn filmmaking, you must begin with editing. You must be trained in editing so that the tempo and rhythm of films are engraved into your body and becomes one of your natural senses.
“The Evil Night” was a 16mm film with strongly experimental elements…While filming, the Korean War had broken out, and we had to pack up and evacuate. We eventually finished the film in Daegu and had it released in Busan."
- Shin Sang-ok
Shin Sang-ok’s teacher, Choi In-kyu
Shin Sang-ok’s debut film “The Evil Night”(1952)
Since his debut in 1952, Shin Sang-ok directed and produced movies through 1957. Shin mostly directed periodicals such as “Dream,”“The Youth,” and “Muyoung Tap.” But at the time, he was merely known as a rookie with great potential.
Beginning in 1958, his presence in the Korean film industry grew bigger. “The Flower of Hell,” which he directed in 1958, was not appreciated much at the time, but was later approved globally as one of his best works. Starting with “A College Woman’s Confess”(1958), Shin emerged as “The film director of Korea” with modern melodramas. He was loved not only by the critics but by the public.
“I dream of making filmmaking into a business and, for such a dream of mine, confidence in making a hit movie was a big gain for me. If “A College Woman’s Confess” had failed as well, my film life would have ended up completely different."
- Shin Sang-ok
The Flower in Hell (1958)
Choi Eun-hee and Kim Jin-kyu at the set of Dongsimcho(1959)
In this film, Choi Eun-hee starred as an elegant and moderate wartime widow. Afterwards, she gained the image of a traditional woman, which was further strengthened in “Mother and A Guest”(1961). Choi Eun-hee did not like having such a fixed image and therefore chose different roles such as the evil woman in “Love Affair”(1963).
In 1959, Shin Sang-ok directed a film which was later greatly disputed. “Independence Association and young Ryee Syng-man (Doglibhyeobhoe-wa cheongnyeon I(Lee) Seungman)” was produced in order to beautify the then incumbent president Ryee Syng-man’s participation in Korea’s independence movement before the 1960 presidential election. After the Rhee Syng-man administration resigned due to election fraud in 1960 and the people’s uprising(April Revolution), Shin Sang-ok had been placed in a difficult situation for directing the movie.
“Among my early works, another one that has great meaning for me is “Independence Association and young Ryee Syng-man “(1959). The entire film industry was forced to produce this film as propaganda for President Ryee Syng-man, who was running for the next presidential election….
But the movie “Independence Association and young Ryee Syng-man” proved my potential for large scale films and also gave me greater confidence. It also helped me have more interest in our modern history, the conversion from the late period of Joseon to the Republic of Korea. It was a big gain for me. "
Since the April Revolution,“Independence Association and Young Ryee Syng-man” was disputed, but in spite of this, Shin Sang-ok began the year 1960 quite successfully. His family comedy film “A Romantic Papa,” depicting the life of a lower-income family, turned out to be a success both artistically and commercially. “To the Last Day” also received good reviews.
A Romantic Papa(1960)
Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee at the set(Nami Island)of “To the Last Day”(1960)
In 1961, Shin Sang-ok directed and produced “Seong Chunhyang” with Choi Eun-hee starring as the leading actress. It was made during the same period as film director Hong Seong-ki’s “The Love Story of Chunhyang” starring Hong’s wife, Kim Ji-mee, as the heroine, Chunhyang. It became an interesting competition between the two director-and-actress couples. Both films were the first color cinemascopic films to be made in Korea. “The Love Story of Chunhyang” was released first, but eventually, “Seong Chunhyang” was a huge hit with the victory going to the Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee couple.
The record breaking ticket sales became the foundation of the growth of Shin Films. Afterwards, in the early 1960s, Shin produced big hits continuously, including“Evergreen Tree”(1961), “Mother and a Guest”(1961), “Prince Yeonsan”(1961), “Bound by Chastity Rule”(1962), “Deaf Samryongi”(1964), and “The Red Scarf”(1964). He became a top film director and his company, Shin Films, became a success accordingly.
“Seong Chunhyang” had been screened for 75 days and drew some 400,000 viewers to set a new box office record. The numbers slightly differed and ranged at 360,000, 380,000, or 400,000. However, considering the population of Seoul at the time being 2.5 million, it certainly was a tremendous success…
With the success of “Seong Chunhyang,” I saw that it was possible to have a “film as an enterprise” and also gained more confidence. My dream was founding a major Korean film company. I put all my efforts into this…”
- Shin Sang-ok
A Shin Films ad in a magazine published in 1962. The company building is seen in the background. CEO Shin Sang-ok, executive director Hwang Nam, President Sin Tae-seon (Shin Sang-ok’s elder brother). At the top of the page, it is indicated as “The Kingdom of Film” and a incense burner, the symbol of Shin Films, is printed on the upper left hand of the page.
A Guest and Mother(1961)
After starring in “A Guest and Mother”(1961), Choi Eun-hee came to represent the Korean mother image. This film won the best film award at the 9th Asia Pacific Film Festival.
The first and second parts of “Prince Yeonsan” were released in January and February 1962 respectively, and are a good example of how the color cinemascope technique was applied to historical films after the first attempt in “Seong Chunhyang.” The brilliant palace scenes, realized by color and cinemascope, are one of the oldest examples of how history can become spectacular attractions to moviegoers. The movie became a model for later historical films.
“Bound by Chastity Rule”(1962), The film, about chastity forced on widows of pre-modern society and the heroine’s resistance, was invited to the Berlin Film Festival.
“Evergreen Tree”(1961), about enlightenment movements in rural regions during the Japanese Imperial Period, was highly praised by the people amid the April Revolution when enlightenment of rural regions had been a major issue.
“Many people have seen the film(Evergreen Tree) as a large number of 16mm copies were made and distributed nationwide. Though tickets were not sold, according to the number of viewers estimated, it could be the most viewed movie in history. I heard President Park Chung-hee cried after seeing it, and even in North Korea, Kim Jong-il recommended the film for the education of party executives. I’m proud to know that government leaders of the South and North were able to sympathize with it. I believe this is the force of film.
It was the film that opened doors to show that literary films could be mainstream hits, and I can proudly say that it’s one of my best works as well.”
- Shin Sang-ok
Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee at the Asia Pacific Film Festival 1964 in Tokyo. Kim Seung-ho, the leading actor of “A Romantic Papa” won the best actor award.
“Deaf Samryongi”(1964) depicting the deaf servant’s ardent love for his madam.
“The Red Scarf”(1964) showcases the life of air force officers during the Korean War applying aerial cinematography for the first time in Korea. The film was a huge hit both in Korea and Southeast Asia.
“This film was awarded for best director, editing and actor at the 11th Asia Pacific Film Festival. It was a tremendous hit while being screened in Southeast Asia, such as Taiwan, as well as in Korea. Taiwanese president Chang Ching-kuo even requested to me, “Please make a movie like this for us.”“The Red Scarf” was the first Korean movie to be officially exported to Southeast Asian countries including Japan and reap such great success.”
In 1967, Shin Films took over the largest studio in Korea at the time in Anyang. Large amounts of expenses were paid to maintain and run the studio and thus, became a big burden to Shin Films’ financial state.
“The Anyang Studio turned barren as could be after the former owner went bankrupt. Thanks to Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil and President Park Chung-hee, I was able to obtain loans from banks to take over the studio and run it again.”
- Shin Sang-ok
After taking over Anyang Studio, Shin Films’ financial situation became more difficult. The cost for the studio was huge, and maintenance and labor had to be paid regularly as well. In order to cover the costs, Shin Films had to mass produce nearly 30 movies a year, and the earnings rate per work dropped. This only resulted in a vicious circle of mass producing low-budget films. In addition, since the late 1960s, the authoritative Park Chung-hee administration’s censorship had tightened, and regulations on filmmaking strengthened. This caused conflict between the government and Shin Sang-ok.
To make matters worse, the Korean film industry began to deteriorate rapidly in the 1970s. In 1975, due to the kiss scene in the trailer of “Rose and Wild Dog,” which had not been included during censorship, the film company’s license had been revoked. Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee’s marriage which had cooled off since Shin’s affair with actress Oh Su-mi, came to an end in 1976 when they were officially divorced.
"As for me, I tried to stay interested in social issues and keep my critical eye wide open. And I believe I had this awareness underlying in all of my works. For example, through “Daewon-gun” I criticized the military government’s suppression of the opposition party. Of course, I cannot say whether my view was successfully conveyed."
- Shin Sang-ok
"Eunuch(1968)" which depicts the dangerous love between the king, concubine, and the ex of the concubine, includes homosexual scenes and suggestive, so Shin Sang-ok was investigated by the prosecution on charges of producing and distributing pornography.
“Rose and Wild Dog”(1975)which had Shin Films’ license revoked
“Since then, for 3 years, I tried everything I could to get the license back for Shin Films but to no avail. The 3 years I had to spend separated from film by force, were the toughest and most frustrating times of my life. ”
- Shin Sang-ok
Since the revocation of Shin Films’ license, Shin Sang-ok did not give up and tried everything to make a comeback into the film industry, but this was not easy. While Shin Sang-ok was abroad in search of investors, Choi Eun-hee was abducted from Hong Kong to North Korea in January, 1978. While visiting Hong Kong to find his wife, Shin also was abducted in July. They were confined separately and reunited in 1983. Kim Jong-il was the wirepuller. With full support from Kim Jong-il, the two founded the Shin Film’s studio and began producing movies. Between 1983 and 1986, Shin directed 7 films(“The Hero Noreturn”(1984), “An Account of Escape”(1984), “Love, Love, My Love”(1984), “Salt”(1985), “Shimcheongjeon(The Story of Shimcheong)”(1985), “Breakwater(Bangpaje)”(1985), and “Pulgasari”(1985)) and produced 20 films. Among the films Shin directed, “The Hero Noreturn” and “Salt” were awarded at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and the Moscow International Film Festival, which raised North Korean cinema’s global status.
"As soon as we saw each other, we ran into each other’s arms. I could hear a loud applause. I could tell by the camera flashes that someone was taking a picture of us. I couldn’t believe this was all real. …
He(Kim Jong-il) speaks in a loud voice, holds up director Shin’s hand high in the air, and shouts out to the crowd.
“Comrades, from now on, Mr. Shin will be my film advisor.”
- Choi Eun-hee
Donga Ilbo, April 2, 1984 / The abduction of Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee had been kept confidential until 1984 when it was released by South Korean intelligence authorities, which greatly stirred the nation.
"The greatest cultural shock I gave to the North Korean people was “Love, Love, My Love,” a musical version of Chunhyangjeon. Until then, the word “love” had never appeared in a film title or in scripts. But in the title alone, the word was used three times. What could be more shocking than this?
Despite this shocking aspect, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were both very satisfied with the film and even had it specially screened for guests of the New Year’s celebration on January 1, 1985, hosted by Kim Ilsung. In this regard, I think they were also aware of the fact that new subject matter needed to be developed."
- Shin Sang-ok
"While filming “Runaway (An Account of Escape)” I was most thrilled when we did the last scene where the lead role, who had joined a gang, blew up a freight car with dynamite. Scenes like train explosions were usually filmed using models and special effects. But as North Korea did not have such techniques, I used it as an excuse to blow up a real freight car and received immediate permission."
- Shin Sang-ok
Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee at the set of “The Hero of No Return”(1984). The film won Shin Sang-ok the best director award at the 1984 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
A scene from “The Hero of Noreturn”(1984)
"After the film had ended and the lights came back on, Kim Jong-il held Eun-hee and me by the wrist and said, “It was very satisfying. I have not a single complaint about it. It was like watching a European movie. I must report it to our commander and the Great Leader soon.” He looked very excited and happy."
- Shin Sang-ok
"“Pulgasari” was the first monster film to be made in North Korea. I was told foreigners were surprised to see such a genre made in North Korea, which they believed only produced political propaganda films.
It was based on a folktale that had been passed down for ages. Filmed with the help of a Japanese special effects crew, Doho Pictures, the film's goal was world-wide distribution. However, when we escaped, the film was banned from the public. Finally, when it was shown to the public in 1998 in Tokyo, it was received with favorable response."
- Shin Sang-ok
“Salt” directed by Shin Sang-ok won Choi Eun-hee the best actress award at the 14th Moscow International Film Festival in 1985. (July, 1985)
“After the film had ended in Moscow and the credits began to go up the screen, I heard no sound from the audience. After having put all our efforts into the film, director Shin and I were greatly depressed. Then suddenly, people began to applaud and soon the entire theater was filled with clapping and cheering. When I turned my head around, I saw all the judges and audience members giving us a standing ovation. I’ve been an actress for more than 40 years, but it was my first time to receive a standing ovation… At this moment, when all the efforts of Shin and I were finally rewarded, my sorrows from being captured in North Korea melted away like snow. The judges and critics all raved that our film was much better than Maxim Gorky’s “The Mother.”
- Choi Eun-hee
Choi Eun-hee and Kim Ji-mee meet again at the Berlin International Film Festival(1986) Kim Ji-mee had been one of the top Korean actresses during the 1950s and 60s along with Choi Eun-hee. Kim attended the Berlin event as leading actress of “Kilsodeum” (Im Kwon-taek, 1985) which made it into the competitive section.
“We attended the Berlin Film Festival opening ceremony party surrounded by guards. Director Shin was talking with a Japanese filmmaker and suddenly called me,
“Ms. Choi, come over here. Ji-mee is here.”
Surprised, I looked around and my eyes met with Kim Ji-mee’s eyes. We both ran towards each other and embraced. ”
- Choi Eun-hee
In March 1986, Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna and dramatically escaped from North Korea. After defecting, the couple lived in seclusion for 3 years in a house provided by the CIA. During that time, the couple wrote their autobiography and for the first time, had some quiet time to themselves. In 1990, Shin Sang-ok made his comeback by directing “Ma Yumi.”“3 Ninjas,”which Shin produced with financial support from a Japanese friend, was distributed by Disney and made it into the top 10 of box office rankings in 1992. The film was also named as the most profitable, low-budget film of the year. Three more films in the “3 Ninjas” series were produced through Columbia Pictures.
Among them, Shin Sang-ok directed the third installment “3 Ninjas Knuckle Back” in 1994. Also in 1994, he directed the movie “Vanished” reporting the Park Chung-hee regime. Thanks to the success of the “3 Ninjas,” Shin Sang-ok was able to establish his third film production company following the ones he had founded in South and North Korea. However, the two other films he had produced in Hollywood, “Galgameth”(1996) and “The Gardener“(1998) did not do well.
“3 Ninjas,” which Shin Sang-ok had produced in Hollywood, was distributed by Disney and made it into the top 10 of box office rankings in 1992. The film was also named as the most profitable, low-budget film of the year. Three more 3 Ninjas series were produced. Among them, Shin Sang-ok directed the third installment 3Ninjas Knuckle Back in 1994. The film’s success significantly helped Shin’s filmmaking career financially during his later years.
“After thinking it over numerous times, I decided to do children’s films. Children’s films did not require expensive top stars, so I could produce one with just around 3 million dollars. I believed it could be a hit if I made it well."
- Shin Sang-ok
“I also experienced failure with two of my films. They caused me a big financial loss. One of them was “Galgameth”(1996), a children’s movie, to which I applied the same theme I used in “Pulgasari” when I was in North Korea, set in the Western Middle Ages period. The other was “The Gardener”(1998), a thriller about a gardener’s murder. I could not find distributors for them. In the case of “Galgameth,” I was unable to make the most in special effects. As for “The Gardener,” I had neglected the Hollywood system where you needed to cast top stars in order to attract viewers. Rather than neglecting, I actually had no choice as I was short in budget. As a result, I was not able to satisfy the standards of major distributors. ”
Shin Sang-ok was appointed as a member of the jury of the 47th Cannes International Film Festival, and his film Vanished had been invited as the opening film for special screening. The event organization committee praised the work as a remarkable anti-establishment film. Shin Sang-ok is said to be the first film director in the Cannes festival’s history to be appointed as judge and also have his work screened in the same year. Second from the left in the front row is Shin Sang-ok and beside him is French actress, Catherine Deneuve. In the back row, second from the right is actor and film director, Clint Eastwood.
“f we look at the films “Ma Yumi”(1990) and “Vanished”(1994) side by side, we notice the two films share something in common. “Ma Yumi” reports the brutal terrorism of North Korea, and “Vanished,” the tyranny of the South Korean military government. From a superficial view, it may be confusing to the observer whether I was for the South or the North. But such a view itself is wrong. What I am interested in is where human dignity and the truth have gone, and not the politically manipulated. I hate adventurous leftists, and I hate immoral rightists. Substantially, an artist must resist all things that suppress humankind, so such clashes are inevitable. ”
- Shin Sang-ok
In 1999, some 20 years after they had been abducted to North Korea, Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee returned to South Korea and settled down there. Shin Sang-ok did not give up his dream of filmmaking and planned large scale works such as the Hamheung Evacuation Operation and Genghis Khan. However, the two films were never produced. Shin’s last work was A Winter Story(2004). Shin Sang-ok passed away in April 2006 due to illness. His life’s companion and filmmaking partner, Choi Eun-hee, runs the Shin Sang-ok Commemoration Association to this day.
Last film directed by Shin Sang-ok, A Winter Story(2004)
Shin Sang-ok at the set of A Winter Story (December 2001)
“The title of Shin Sang-ok’s autobiography written in his later years is “I Was A Film.” How dare an individual pose himself equal to a form of media? But Shin Sang-ok’s life was actually nothing but film. He had no personal life or private possessions other than film. The only inheritance he has left behind is film. The theme and subject matter of his life was film too. To a person like that, “I Was A Film” is not at all an exaggeration or a bluff. It was merely a confession…
He abhorred ideological attitudes and tried to stay a strict pragmatist indifferent to ideologies. But it’s ironical that he had to live such a matchless passionate life for a film person during one of the most politically shaky times. But I assume he had kept a very simple mind and attitude despite the winding paths and the ups and downs he went through in life. “Can go anywhere as long as I can shoot a film!”
・ 신상옥, 최은희, <조국은 저하늘 저멀리(상,하)>, 행림출판, 1988
・ 최은희, <최은희의 고백>, 랜덤하우스코리아, 2007
・ 신상옥, <난 영화였다>, 랜덤하우스코리아, 2007
・ 사단법인 신상옥 감독 기념사업회 기획, <영화감독 신상옥: 그의 사진풍경 그리고 발언 1926-2006>, 2009, 열화당
Curator—Cho Jun-Hyoung, Korean Film Archive