When we see someone`s dramatic experience, we say it is like a “movie.” However, it would be difficult to portray the dramatic life of Shin Sang-ok in any movies.
Shin spent his youth under Japanese colonial rule and started his film career in Seoul immediately after liberation. He had a love affair with top actress Choi Eun-hee as he earned recognition as a director; established his own enterprise Shin Film; reigned in the South Korean movie world for years and then experienced a financial collapse; made films in the rival North Korea while tension between the two Koreas remained high; and eventually escaped to and settled in the U.S. where he died in April.
Born in Cheongjin, North Hamgyeong Province, Oct. 18, 1926, he studied fine arts at the Tokyo Institute of Art, and made his first step into cinema as an art director for a film company named Goryeo Film Society in 1946, the year after liberation. He launched his own career as a film director in 1952 when he directed “The Evil Night.” From then on, he placed himself at the center of the Korean movie world and led the heyday of Korean cinema.
Shin established Seoul Film Company, which later became Shin Sang-Ok Production. Then, with the success of “Dongshimcho,” “Confessions of a College Student,” “Romance Papa,” “My Mother and Her Guest,” and “Seong Chunhyang,” Shin Film came into being. In “Seong Chunhyang,” Shin introduced the technique of color/cinemascope, which marked a decisive turning point to crown him king of Korean cinema. Coincidentally, Director Hong Seong-gi made a film titled “Chunhyang-jon” featuring actress Kim Jimi. “Chunghyang-jon” and “Seong Chunhyang” - both based on the same Korean classic novel and featured the top actresses of the 1960s - saw the two directors staking their pride. Eventually, Shin emerged the victor.
The 60s was the time when Korean cinema took great strides, growing in quantity and quality. However, it was also a time when the authoritarian government pushed policies aimed at systematic development of movies, which it regarded as a means of enlightening the people and publicizing its achievements. In order to control Korean cinema, the Motion Pictures Law was enacted to force the merger or liquidation of film companies. Only movie production companies were allowed to import foreign movies. Shin Films continued to grow under these circumstances but, paradoxically, its fast growth brought about financial difficulties, which led to its collapse and criminal charges against director Shin.
His movie career was in a slump for years until the late 1970s. Then came the shocking incident of his alleged abduction to North Korea. Earlier, in January 1978, his former wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, was reported missing while she was staying in Hong Kong to discuss joint production of a movie with filmmakers there. Shin Sang-ok went to Hong Kong to search for Choi with whom he had maintained a close relationship. Around July 19 he too disappeared from the then British colony. The two re-appeared in Pyongyang soon afterwards and Seoul authorities announced that North Korean agents abducted them separately from Hong Kong. They, however, continued to work on movies in the North. Shin advised on the production of 13 movies and directed seven, including “Pulgasari,” “Sarang Sarang Nae Sarang (Oh My Love),” and “Salt,” with all-out support from Kim Jong-il, son of supreme leader Kim Il-sung. After staying in North Korea for nine years, Shin and Choi, captured headlines once again as they escaped from the North and sought an asylum in the U.S. Embassy in Vienna in 1986. Since then, the couple lived mostly in the U.S.
In all, Shin produced 250 movies and directed 75, successfully combining amusement and artistry in his world of cinema of various genres spanning from melodrama to actions and from home drama to war film. It was his extraordinary passion, devotion, and talent that he made Shin Films a legend in the Korean movie industry, but the fact that he wanted to do everything by himself served as a limit. He made many adversaries in and outside the film industry and, in the end his self-centeredness caused him to become enclosed in his own world of cinema.
Looking back, Korean cinema was rich and beautiful thanks to Shin Sang-ok. Either “an entrepreneur who wanted to become an artist” or “an artist who became an entrepreneur,” director Shin helped lay a new base for Korean cinema during a most important period in Korean film history. May he rest in peace…
[ [The Munhwa Ilbo, April 15, 2006] ]