This is 3 Ninjas.
If you’re around my age, you might remember it as part of a mid-90’s craze for all things ninja. After the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, American youth could not get enough of wisecracking young men practicing the art of ninjutsu. There were a few things that came out of this era, some of them pretty embarrassing, and amongst them, 3 Ninjas was nothing particularly special.
It was about three youths who liked pizza, candy, music, bicycling–all the stuff you were supposed to like–who outwitted three bumbling burglars with a number of zany household traps, got the girl and eventually foiled a terrorist plot with the help of their grandpa, who taught them all how to be ninjas.
It was really stupid, so of course I loved it.
It was produced, in part, by a man named Simon Sheen.
This is North Korea.
Formed in the early days of the rivalry between the East and West, it was part of Korea that was claimed by Russia after the Korean War, which occurred after the occupying Japanese colonies had been expelled after World War II.
It is a nation of dire poverty ruled by the last Communist dictatorship remaining on earth. Its many troubles include an intractable social structure, widespread famine, endless paranoia and a government so oppressive that it could almost be called cartoonish if not for the thousands of its citizens dying in prison camps.
At the moment it is controlled by a man called Kim Jong-Un. For many years before that, including the 90’s, it was controlled by a man named Kim Jong-Il.
In the 70’s to 80’s, North Korea’s many troubles became the world’s many troubles. Inflated by then-relevant military equipment, North Korea was frequently a source of strife in the world, including many military skirmishes, assassination attempts and kidnappings of foreign citizens.
These latter ones were almost all choreographed by Kim Jong-Il, who later kidnapped a man named Shin Sang-Ok.
This is him, doing what he loved.
Shin Sang-Ok was a man who was born in North Korea back before there was such a place. He moved to South Korea later and, at a young age, decided that he had to make movies.
Note the language choice there. He didn’t want to make movies, he had to make movies. It was his only calling in life. He wanted to do nothing else but make movies. We all tend to laugh gaily, sipping wine, as we discuss theoretical “callings” to our art, but Shin Sang-Ok never discussed it, any more than you or I would discuss a need to eat, to breathe, to sleep. Because these things were one and the same to him: something that simply had to be done, occasionally to his own detriment.
Post-war Asia was an interesting time: devastated and humiliated, many Asian countries sought a means of exporting their image, rebuilding themselves in the eyes of the world. A fair number of artists, Shin included, realized that the way to do this was through film. In this era, you would start to see geniuses like Akira Kurosawa rise, but few people discuss Shin Sang-Ok.
But back when he was in his prime? They did. Because Shin Sang-Ok was everywhere. His movies were phenomenal, the delight of his country of South Korea, enrapturing the attentions and imaginations of a country that had seen far too much suffering. He was rebuilding a nation through the stories he told on screen and it did not go unappreciated. As he was the delight of his people, so too did the military dictatorship of the Park government appreciate him. At the top of his game, his films were so popular that the leader of his country was his best friend.
His game ended, of course. They all do.
His need to make movies led to the breakup of his personal relationships, the end of his financial success and later the end of his financial stability, and ultimately, his falling out with the Park government and the revocation of his license to make movies. He was denied his calling. Things could not get much worse for him.
But they did.
He was later abducted by North Korean’s military dictatorship, along with his ex-wife. He was imprisoned in horrible conditions and tortured until he agreed to do as they asked. And they asked him to make movies. Kim Jong-Il knew what he did and knew that a nation could define themselves by its films. To that end, North Korean films were droning, monotonous affairs about duty and loyalty to the government. Shin Sang-Ok did the impossible and rejuvenated a second Korea, making dynamic and energetic films that reinvigorated the populace and made them question their lives.
You might say Shin contributed to North Korea’s hermit kingdom cracking, just a bit.
He eventually escaped. His films were never as popular as they were before his collapse. Eventually, he would fall out of making movies, withdraw into himself and quietly pass away. But before he did, he tried desperately to make movies again. When his style was no longer in favor, he tried new things, just to stay relevant, all so he could keep making films. Compromising a lot of his ideas, he reached for what was popular, including a shitty little ninja action film that he made under the name he took when he converted to Christianity (in part, because he thought it’d be easier to help him make movies).
I learned all of this by reading A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fischer (which you all need to read, I mean really need to read) and, upon learning it, I was kind of blown away.
The idiot ninja action film I watched as a kid was the last legs of a man who was being denied his needs for a final time. The stupid movie about stupid kids was his desperate attempt to stay relevant so he could keep making films. While I thought I was watching a movie about pizza and kids and ninjas, I was actually watching a man’s dream die.
I was disquieted by this.
As I hope you are disquieted by this blog post, just a little.
I’ve never been a fan of the whole idea of a writing “community”: people gabbing about all the works they’re going to write, people sitting idly in coffee shops as they wait for the muse to strike, people laughing and making jokes about bars and cliches and all the ways they’re going to revolutionize the writing world…someday.
But it didn’t really solidify to me why I disliked that so much out of a vague contempt for posturing until I read about Shin Sang-Ok’s life.
Creation is powerful. Amazingly so. It’s more than words on the page, more than sitting down in a coffee shop and so, so much more than typing #amwriting as if that means something.
Shin Sang-Ok knew this. Shin Sang-Ok used this to rejuvenate one Korea, then the other Korea, all at the expense of his own life. It was never a choice for him. Writing was more than passion to him, it was need. When he had it, his life was complete–even when he was kidnapped and tortured, he was whole when he could make movies. When he lost it, he withdrew and quietly disappeared from the world. He would be remembered for ninja movies and for being kidnapped. But there’s enough talk about that. I want to tell you what Shin Sang-Ok meant to me.
Your duty is to the art. And it is a heavy one. Your duty is to write what you have to, to be true to the art, to fill your need. No one else has a right to that: no government, no loyalty, no people. These things are incidental to the art. The art is everything. It is drive, it is ambition, it is big enough to revitalize countries and intimidate governments.
But I don’t think Shin Sang-Ok ever thought of that when he was making them. I don’t think he ever wanted to appease governments. He wanted to make movies. He wanted to make art. He wanted to fulfill his needs.
This blog post is in tribute to him: the impact he was rarely praised for, the needs that were rarely understood, the power he never cared he had.
And I hope you took as much out of that story as I did.