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A North Korean film with an incredible backstory is coming to LA

by The Frame staff | The Frame

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Filmmaker Sheen Song-ok on set. A film he made in North Korea, "Salt," will have its North American premiere at a film festival in Culver City. Asian World Film Festival

A film made in North Korea in the 1980s will soon make its North American premiere in Los Angeles.

"Salt" will screen at the Third Annual Asian World Film Festival on Nov. 1. The movie was made by filmmaker Sheen Song-ok and starred his ex-wife, the actress Choi Eun-Hee. The two made it while they were purportedly being held captive in North Korea.

As the story goes, in 1978 while in Hong Kong, the two South Koreans were kidnapped by agents working on behalf of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il. Kim was a huge movie fan and, reportedly, his hopes were that these two artists, who once had shining careers in South Korea, could elevate the filmmaking in his country.

Shin Sang-ok in "The Lovers and the Despot," a Magnolia Pictures release.
Shin Sang-ok in "The Lovers and the Despot," a Magnolia Pictures release. Magnolia Pictures

Shin ended up making a variety of films in North Korean says Georges Chamchoum, director of the Asian World Film Festival:

"He made action [films]. And he made a Godzilla-type movie "Pulgasari," which is also one of the most famous North Korean movies."

Chamchoum says that "Salt" is none of those. It is "sort of drama-propaganda. Any North Korean movie, no matter what — it's always tainted with propaganda. And it's a beautiful story – very touching."

Sheen Sang-ok died in 2006 and, according to Chamchoum, the rights to "Salt" belong to his family. Festival officials reached out to his son, Jeongkyun Sheen, who is in South Korea and provided a 35mm print of the movie. For the festival he provided these memories, shared in a press release:

“Honestly, I don’t have a lot of childhood memories of my father. The only thing I pretty much remember is my dad dragging his exhausted body home and flipping through film-related books. After escaping from North Korea, my father lived with me in America. He lived as though he was in hiding and wasn’t able to make movies.”

Of the making of "Salt," Sheen's son had a particular story: “There is a scene in 'Salt,' where the lead actress [Choi Eun-hee] and countless other extras carry salt over the mountains. This scene required a severe wind to blow. But while shooting, the wind machines couldn’t create that effect. So, director Sheen Sang-ok shared his frustrations with Kim Jung-il. The next day, Kim Jung-Il sent a helicopter to fly by, causing the wind to blow and successfully creating the real-life effect. My father said he was very surprised to see how things that cannot be done in a capitalist world [regarding production costs] can be easily accomplished by one command of Kim Jung-il.

Shin and Choi remained in North Korea, making films until 1986 when they sought political asylum at the U.S. embassy while on a trip to Vienna. 

Shin Sang-ok, Kim Jong-il, and Choi Eun-hee in "The Lovers and the Despot," a Magnolia Pictures release.
Shin Sang-ok, Kim Jong-il, and Choi Eun-hee in "The Lovers and the Despot," a Magnolia Pictures release. Magnolia Pictures

The story of the abduction is told in a 2016 documentary, "The Lovers and the Despot," from British filmmakers Ross Adam and Robert Cannan. When The Frame spoke with Adam and Cannan, they noted that some people in South Korea questioned the truthfulness of the kidnapping story.

Ross Adam: A lot of people think the story is too farfetched to be true. They also are very aware that Sheen was down-and-out and had lost his ability to make movies at the time that he went missing. This seems very convenient. Everyone knows that here's a guy who just wanted to make films. Suddenly he disappears, he turns up in North Korea and he's given everything by a dictator. He can make any film he wants. 

Sheen had maintained that he was made to do five years of hard labor when he was first in North Korea. Adam said: "Some people would question, Is that really true? But when we look at when the films appear to be made, or when they started appearing in Eastern European film festivals, there is a five-year gap, which is pretty hard to explain." 

Filmmaker Robert Cannan added: "Also on [Sheen's] side is the fact that the Korean CIA vetted his story for a while."

Chamchoum, director of the upcoming festival, says he saw "The Lovers and the Despot" and admits that Sheen's alleged kidnapping "raises a lot of questions. "But, you know what? Each person takes a side. And my side is, I truly believe he was kidnapped."

"Salt" will screen at the Asian World Film Festival on Nov. 1. You can get tickets here.

 

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