Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fischer

This work of creative nonfiction will undoubtedly catch many Asia-watchers by surprise. Facts about North Korea are thin on the ground here in America, but this book blasts open a personal history of Kim Jong-Il with a canny, graceful, and wise commentary that is far beyond what anyone else has been able to manage. It is an enormous feat of research, but more than that, it is so compulsively readable that we are held captive.

It begins detailing the history of two individuals who were instrumental in the South Korean film industry in the 1940s and 50s. Before you ask how relevant that information is to us today, just remember that the author is a film producer who claims these early films have a cult following now, perhaps because of the Gangnam rage that has spread worldwide, and has opened a glimpse into a world never before considered worthy of serious study. We couldn’t have a better introduction to film in South Korea nor have we ever had a more detailed look at the North Korean film fanatic Kim Jong-Il, who kidnapped the two leading lights in the South Korean film industry to bolster his own propaganda machine.

The beautiful and talented South Korean film star Choi Eun-Hee was kidnapped first. Fischer compares her favorably to Marilyn Monroe (with whom she was photographed) in terms of star quality and stage presence. Choi's former husband, the film director and producer Shin Sang-Ok, was taken later, though because he’d tried to escape he was imprisoned in North Korea for a number of years. Eventually they were reunited in Pyongyang and began producing films for Kim Jong-Il’s ailing film industry. This book is partially based on their memoir of their time in captivity and their successful escape to the West.

Perhaps more importantly, we learn a huge amount about the Kim regimes. This material may be out there somewhere, in a hundred escape memoirs, spy reports, or academic papers but I have never seen so much information about Kim Jong-Il and North Korea in one place before. Besides all this great new information, the writing is absolutely first-rate, the story fantastic, and the immersion into film so well-informed that it seems like a trick.

Who is Paul Fischer and how does he know so much about North Korea? The Introduction and Afterword discuss sources, and mostly my concerns about veracity of content were allayed. It may be possible that no one ever bothered before to gather together the dispersed information in just this way before. I just don’t know. Frankly, it is Fischer’s skill that is simply stunning, besides the vast trove of collected information about the Kim regime and North Korea. Fischer's sentences are rich and coherent in a way writers only dream of, and the sections pass easily into one another while we readers are led deeper into the intricacies of film lore and the strange and frightening propaganda machine of Kim Jong-Il.

I have no idea whether or not Shin Sang-Ok and his wife Choi Eun-Hee were abducted or if they defected to North Korea. In my mind it is regrettable either way but not particularly relevant now. It is not what I focused on. I have heard some of the details of kidnapping, of prisons, of life in North Korea, but nothing like this detailed look north of the 38th parallel. This book has everything: grandeur, mystery, terror, and a fluency that makes this tremendous storytelling no matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on.

This book must be labelled creative nonfiction because of the conversations recounted verbatim and the reconstructions of scenes so complete you would think Fischer 'produced' them. I don’t care. If one-fourth of the information in this book is true we have made great headway in understanding and demystifying a completely obscure regime. You will recall the splash Truman Capote made with his fictional recreation of the nonfiction event he wrote about in In Cold Blood. Let’s call this in the same vein until we can verify, but remember this man Paul Fischer. He has burst on the literary scene with a truly stupefying and important offering. If he can make films the way he can write we are in for a real treat.

I listened to the Random House Audio production of this book, beautifully read by Stephen Park. I have ordered the Flatiron Books print edition to look it over more carefully. As I say, books like this don’t come along very often. To think this was a debut that took about two years to put together is extraordinary.

Paul Fischer answers a few questions here. Boston radio station WGBH's Forum Institute filmed a portion of Fischer's reading at the Harvard Bookstore in February 2015. That YouTube video is available here.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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