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  Shin Sang-ok, Pioneer Director, Dies
After Abduction, He Made Movies With NK Leader

By Park Chung-a
Staff Reporter

Shin Sang-ok a renonwned Korean movie director who lived a life just as dramatic as a movie died in a Seoul National University hospital on Tuesday night. He was 80.

He had been under medical treatment since receiving a liver transplant in 2004. He is survived by his wife, actress Choi Un-hee, two sons and two daughters.

Wearing black hanbok to mourn for her late husband, and looking weary and sad, Choi, 79, initially declined to speak to reporters. But she gradually spoke of her husband.

``He only knew movies for his entire life,'' Choi said. ``His life was movie itself.''

``I did not expect him to leave so suddenly. He probably did not expect it either. I don't think he thought about dying until the moment he closed his eyes,'' he said.

He was born in 1926 in Northern Hamkyung Province, at the northeastern part of the Korean Peninsula, currently a part of North Korea. Shin studied in the Tokyo Fine Arts School, the precursor to Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in Japan before returning to Korea three years later.

The director is not only known for filming the first kiss scene in South Korean cinema, but also for his years of stay in North Korea.

The rumors regarding reasons and events leading up to the alleged abduction of him and his wife to Pyongyang still abound.

Shin started his film career as an assistant production designer on Choi In-kyu's ``Viva Freedom!,'' the first Korean film made after the country's liberation from Japan in 1945.

He made his directing debut with "Akya" (The Evil Night) in 1952 in the midst of the Korean War.

Shin married Choi in 1953, who was one of the foremost leading movie actresses. By that time, Shin himself was one of the key figures who represented Korea film industry after the war, and their union created quite a stir.

Shin was at the forefront of the "Golden Age" of South Korean cinema in the late 1950s and 1960s, often directing two or more films per year. He opened the production company titled Shin Films, which produced around 300 films during the 1960s.

His films dealt with ethics and tragedies of Korean traditional family values as well as eroticism. His "Jiokhwa" (Flower in Hell) (1958) was the first Korean movie to show a kiss on screen.

His "Sarangbang Sonnimgwa Eomeoni (My Mother and Her Guest),'' featuring a unaccomplished romance between a widow and a bachelor, was shown in the Venice International Film Festival.

During the 1970s, Shin became less active in making films due to the dictatorial government's strict censorship upon cinema industry. Most of the films he directed during the period ended up being flops.

In a strange twist of affairs, the director and his wife were separately abducted to North Korea in 1978 while in Hong Kong to produce a film. According to the South Korean government at that time, the couple was abducted by orders from the future North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who wanted to establish a film industry for his country. The North Korean government has denied such accusations, claiming that Shin came to the country voluntarily.

Shin later said that he enjoyed a close relationship with current North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, known as a movie buff, during his nine years in the North. Pyongyang provided him with a luxury villa built for the leader, a Mercedes Benz and $3 million every year for his work, he said.

Shin directed seven films with Kim Jong-il acting as an executive producer. The best known of these films is Pulgasari, a giant-monster film, which portrays the effects of unchecked capitalism. In 1986, Shin and his wife made an escape in Vienna, and fled to the United States, seeking political asylum, until they returned to Seoul in 2002 for good.

During his stay in the U.S., Shin worked under the pseudonym Simon Sheen, directing several movies. He also served on the jury for the Cannes Film Festival and for various Korean film festivals.

After Shin returned to Korea, investing 2 billion won, he built Anyang Shin Film Art Center aimed at nurturing professional film directors. In 2004 he was designated as an honorary professor of film department at Sungkyul University and concentrated on teaching.

Up to his death, Shin worked on a film featuring historical hero Genghis Khan. According to his wife Choi, he had thought of making the film since 1995 and scenario of the movie has been done. It could have been his last movie.

``It hurts me the most that he could not finish the movie, Genghis Khan, for which he had invested so much time and passion. He spent years fixing the scenario,'' Choi said.

The government honored the late director yesterday with Geum-Gwan Order of Culture Merit, the highest one among the government's Order of Culture Merits.

04-12-2006 16:30

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