Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Theater of Oppression

This week I finished reading A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power by Paul Fischer. The subtitle sums it up, but the full details of the story are incredible.

During Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il's over-long reigns as dictators of North Korea, they made a policy of drug trafficking, terrorism, and kidnapping foreign citizens, while starving, imprisoning, and systematically brainwashing their own. The stories of suffering in North Korea, all gained from accounts related by escapees from the secretive country, are bizarre and saddening.

Actress Choi Eun-hee was a survivor of the Korean War, and she and her director husband, Shin Sang-ok, lived in South Korea afterward making films. They divorced after Shin's public affair with a younger actress, and when Choi disappeared, there were accusations that Shin was behind it. Then Shin himself was taken, and for several years they were kept apart in North Korea as an attempt was made to reeducate them. No one knew what had happened to them, and neither Choi nor Shin knew what had happened to the other until they were reunited by Kim Jong-Il as part of his plan to use them for propaganda creation.

Choi and Shin - aren't they cute together?
Kim Jong-Il was a lover of film, and spent a large part of his country's money on creating a library of pirated films for his own personal enjoyment. He took Choi and Shin in an attempt to prop up the lackluster North Korean film industry, a propaganda machine for his father's reign, and later for his own.

I've read one other journalistic account of life behind the DMZ (the extraordinary Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea), and George Orwell's Oceania pales in comparison. North Korea is a country where for decades the Great Leader (Il-Sung) and the Dear Leader (Jong-Il) paraded their citizenry like puppets, all the while expecting them to swallow astonishing lies. For example:
[....] the Central News Agency exhorted the Korean people to celebrate [Kim Jong-Il's] fortieth birthday two years in a row, as if nothing had happened.
This wasn't out of vanity, but simply to place Kim Jong-Il's birth at the numerically significant 30 years after his father's, instead of 29 years. It's the least outrageous of the lies told by the Kim regime.

The story of Choi and Shin's lives before and after captivity is fascinating, and I highly recommend this book to anyone who has never read anything about North Korea. The author cites many news articles in his bibliography, and I suggest taking a look at those as well.

One thing this story does, more than anything, is show what value art can have in the lives of people who are oppressed and suffering:
There is an old Asian saying that 'drop by drop, the water perforates the stone.' Kim Jong-Il had kidnapped Shin Sang-Ok and Choi Eun-Hee to help promote his regime and tighten his control on his people's thoughts. Instead, Shin and Choi's movies were drops of water, each one slowly but surely wearing away the Kims' supremacy. (278)
I certainly hope this proves true, and that the corrupt Kim dynasty will one day face a reckoning - not from a foreign power, but from within. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and read this book!

Choi with Marilyn Monroe, 1954

Saturday, March 5, 2016

New Bookshelves for Departed Writers

This weekend I took the long drive into the nearest town that has more stores than our single Walmart. Five furniture stores later, I landed in the overpriced Pottery Barn and finally found what I needed: a pre-assembled half-height bookshelf. (I am deathly sick of assembling bookshelves myself - the last shelf lay in my living room half-finished for about a month.)

I immediately filled the bookshelf with the last box of books rescued from my parents' basement. I have great satisfaction in having a copy of Pat Conroy's Beach Music waiting for me out in the open now.

Pat Conroy died this week at the age of 70. Harper Lee and Umberto Eco died in February this year. Last year we lost Oliver Sacks, Jackie Collins, and Ann Rule.

Each author left behind a unique literary legacy, and they all meant something to me personally, too. Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery set in a library labyrinth, led me to Jorges Luis Borges, one of my favorite authors.

I once bought a paperback copy of Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me, but as at the time I lived in Seattle and was attending the University of Washington, I immediately chickened out and gave it away. Her books are read to pieces in my library, but I lack the necessary courage to pick them up at this point. Someday! (Maybe.)

I read To Kill a Mockingbird as a teenager, and feel it is overdue for a re-read. I don't plan on reading the controversial Go Set a Watchman anytime soon.

Oliver Sacks' compassionate accounts of treating patients with neurological disorders, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, made me see medicine and mental illness in a new way. His TED Talk on hallucinations is a great introduction to his work, given near the end of his life.

Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides amazed me by being a literary story that was also a page-turner - an incredibly rare combination.

Jackie Collins' American Star kept me well-entertained, and is the perfect level of fluff, which in my book is praise. It is no simple thing to write an effortlessly entertaining book. Many try, few succeed.

Rest in peace, you wonderful authors. I will cherish your works.