Film years, Korean names and correct romanization of Korean names are the biggest weaknesses of this list, so if you have any updates/additions you want to make, please email me at email@example.com. A permanent link to the database will be always be at the top of the site and also here.
Shin Sang-ok had many lives.
He began his cinematic career working on Choi In-gyu’s Viva Freedom!, the first film made in Korea after attaining independence from Japan. From there Shin went on to have a sparkling career in the “Golden Age” of Korean movies. His 1961 effort, Mother and a Guest, is a beautiful literary adaptation which is both lyrical and (mildly) daring in its use of sexual themes.
Told from the impossibly cute perspective of Ok-hui (Jeon Young-seon), the young daughter of the widowed mother (played by Shin Sang-ok’s then wife Choi Eun-hee), the film demonstrates why Shin was known as the Orson Welles of Korean cinema.
Alas, there was far more to happed in Shin’s long and distinguished career that would give him more notoriety that his great films of the 1960s. After falling out with the Korean government, he was forced to head to Hong Kong to make films for the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest studios.
In 1978 Shin joined his then ex-wife in North Korea where he directed 7 films over the coming years, perhaps the most prolific and artistically important period for North Korean films.
The pair then went to the US and the final stage of Shin’s remarkable career began when he produced a series of films that many of us will remember from our childhood: 3 Ninjas.
As the title of Shin’s autobiography suggests (I, Was a Film) Shin had one of the most remarkable lives you could ever imagine, and in the coming weeks I’ll look at some of the amazing films he produced. But for now, I suggest tracking down Mother and A Guest. You won’t regret it.
Once again, I am pleasantly surprised by this offering from North Korea. Obviously, you have to judge this film – which I imagine most would find hard to sit though, even at 78 minutes in length – with a different criteria than you would a film from a more developed country.
The key to the enjoyment I got out of the film was its pure simplicity: a squadron of North Korean soldiers during the Korean war must scramble across dangerous terrain to cut off an American attack (with only the eponymous 12 hours in which to do it). With a commander whose health is failing him, a group of young but fiercely patriotic soldiers and a character who is perhaps the closest to comic relief I have seen in a North Korean film to date, the DPRK army manage to hold off the Yanks (who foolishly informed the press of their planned attack before going through with it).
You actually have a pretty dramatic and action-filled movie on your hands, but what the film is most notable for is the first appearance I have come across of James Joseph Dresnok.
The movie also has a special place in my heart as they used a quote from my review in Time Out Beijing on the cover of the DVD. Here’s what I had to say about the film:
The excellent folk at Beijing-based Koryo Tours (the best people to deal with if you want to travel to the DPRK) licensed this little “gem” of a film directly from North Korea around the time of the last world cup.
It’s a chipper production that surprisingly mirrors many of the problems in modern football: too much player power, interfering owners and supporters who just love to complain.
The actual scenes of football, however, are not that great. They make Sly Stallone’s efforts in Escape to Victory look like these fellas in yellow. It also makes another addition into the sporting genre of North Korean films that I’ve been watching recently. Watch out of more updates on those in the next couple of days.
Still definitely worth a gander, especially as this is a particularly rare film to make it out of the DPRK with great English subtitling. To purchase a copy, email the guys at firstname.lastname@example.org and then can hook you up.
The Game of their Lives (2002) is a great documentary about the North Korean football team who won a lot of fans during their outstanding campaign in the 1966 World Cup in England.
Considered total outsiders, they managed to beat Italy 1-0 and even made it to the quarter-finals where they faced Portugal and the devastating Eusébio and came unstuck.
Not as politically loaded as some of the documentaries I’ve seen about the DPRK but it does serve as a good caveat to some of the sporting movies I’ll be writing about in the coming weeks.