"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“The task set before the cinema today is one of contributing to people’s development into true communists … This historic task requires, above all, a revolutionary transformation of the practice of directing.” – Kim Jong Il’s “On the Art of the Cinema” (1973)
“What a wretched fate,” Shin Sang-Ok, now 77, remembers thinking after the meeting with the pudgy man in the gray Mao jacket. “I hated communism, but I had to pretend to be devoted to it to escape from this barren republic. It was lunacy.”
Shin is a film director of legendary stature in his native country — the Orson Welles of South Korea. He modernized movies at a time when people hungered for art, for escape, following the Korean War. He and his wife, the well-known actress Choi Eun Hee, were among Seoul’s celebrity set. But in 1978, he ran afoul of the frequently repressive government of Gen. Park Chung Hee, who closed his studio. After making at least 60 movies in 20 years, Shin’s career appeared to be over.
What soon followed, according to Shin’s memoir, “Kingdom of Kim,” was an experience that revived his career in a most unbelievable way. Shin and his wife were both kidnapped by North Korea’s despot-in-training, Kim Jong Il, who sought to create a film industry that would allow him to sway a world audience to the righteousness of the Korea Workers’ Party. Shin would be his propagandist, Choi his star.
Shin, reticent to talk about his experiences to an American reporter, instead allowed a representative to give Salon an English translation of “Kingdom of Kim,” which has only been released in his own country in Korean. North Korean apparatchiks have tried to cast doubt on Shin’s story, claiming he willingly defected to North Korea and absconded with millions. But Korea experts find Shin’s story believable. Eric Heginbotham, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is one of many Kim-watchers who say it’s consistent with what is known about the regime. Pyongyang now admits it captured 11 Japanese citizens in the late ’70s and ’80s to act as cultural advisors. Several died in captivity, some in suicides. “The abduction cases from Japan were a real eye-opener,” Heginbotham says.
And one of the reporters who has met with the couple also says he has no reason to doubt Shin. Don Oberdorfer, formerly of the Washington Post and now a respected Korea scholar, says that of the many “questionable” defectors he has interviewed over the years, these two seemed very trustworthy. “I made it a practice not to repeat the various yarns about Kim unless I felt confident from reliable sources they were true,” he said. “This one I believed.”
But it’s certainly as fantastical as many of his movies. Shin writes of being caught trying to escape, and spending four years in an all-male prison camp as a result, left to assume his wife was dead. Then, just as suddenly, he was brought into the inner sanctum of Kim Jong Il, the would-be successor to his father, Kim Il Sung, who ruled the country for nearly 50 years. Shin’s talents would then officially fall to the service of North Korea, and he would make seven movies before he and his wife made a breathtaking escape in Vienna in 1986.
Not many have escaped to tell of the habits of the man who is now the most dangerous dictator in the world — armed with nuclear and chemical weapons, and seemingly touched by madness. Shin’s stories offer revealing glimpses of the man now threatening to “destroy the world.” In fact, there is more than a passing resemblance between Kim and the insatiable Pulgasari, the communist Godzilla rip-off that Shin, at Kim’s request, created for North Korean audiences, and which has become a camp curiosity for monster movie aficionados.
Shin says that shortly after arriving in Pyongyang he made several attempts to escape, and was punished with four years at Prison No. 6, where he lived on a diet of grass, salt, rice and party indoctrination — “tasting bile all the time,” he writes. “I experienced the limits of human beings.” All the while, he received no word about his wife (who was held under house arrest) and so assumed the worst.
Then, in 1983, they were both released, and before long, reunited at a reception thrown by Kim Jong Il. Over soft drinks, the top party official finally, incredibly, explained why they were there.
“The North’s filmmakers are just doing perfunctory work. They don’t have any new ideas,” Kim told the couple. “Their works have the same expressions, redundancies, the same old plots. All our movies are filled with crying and sobbing. I didn’t order them to portray that kind of thing.” The couple was stunned.
By 1978, Kim had become disgusted with his Mt. Paektu Creative Group, a studio that, as explained in Kim’s 1973 instruction manual, “On the Art of the Cinema,” was run on the “monolithic guidance” of party groupthink and named after the mountain where, according to state myth, a shooting star soared overhead, giving the universe’s fiery approval to the soil of Kim’s birth. (Actually, he was born in Siberia.) Kim told Shin he felt a “profound disappointment” with their work.
In the 1960s, Kim Il Sung’s propaganda machine had created “Sea of Blood” and “The Flower Girl,” films that while regarded as tedious and crude by South Koreans were products the North was quite proud of, and were based on revolutionary operas. “Sea of Blood” is a war hagiography that gives Kim Il Sung exaggerated credit for victories over Japan in the 1930s. Recently it was still being shown widely, says Columbia University professor Charles Armstrong, who calls it a tool for reducing citizen unhappiness in the face of starvation. And like “Titanic” and its schmaltzy “My Heart Will Go On,” “Sea of Blood” produced a hit song: “My Heart Will Remain Faithful.”
“Films should contain musical masterpieces like these,” Kim Jong Il writes in his book: “the fusion of noble ideas and burning passion.” He spends most of the book entreating actors and directors, whom he compares to generals, to master their craft. How? Sheer party loyalty.
“Actors must be ideologically prepared before acquiring high level skills,” he writes, recommending a kind of Communist method acting. “No revolutionary actor has ever actually been a Japanese policeman or capitalist … To effectively embody the hateful enemy, the actor requires an ardent love of his class and a burning hostility towards the enemy.”
Kim’s book also suggests that filmmakers draw from real life, avoid creating unrealistic movies about “the colourful lives of flamboyant characters,” and reveals: “In the final analysis, a director who pins his hopes on finding a ‘suitable actor’ is taking a gamble in his creative work. And no director who relies on luck in creative work has ever achieved real success.”
During the same period, in South Korea, Shin Sang-Ok’s studio, Shin Films, had produced a number of box-office hits. He is best known for a 1968 historical drama called “The Eunuch,” about concubines and emasculated servants unable to consummate their secret love. A popular theme in Shin’s films — not unlike the Hollywood weepies of the 1950s — concerns the plight of women chaffing under the limits of society’s expectations, such as “The Evergreen Tree” (1961), in which Choi played a reform-minded woman struggling against provincialism to teach rural children how to read and write. “Though this film does not directly express class consciousness, the dedication and faith in the people might be the reason this movie was praised and used as a textbook for acting in North Korea,” writes Korean film critic Kwak Hyun-Ja. At 17, Choi had run away from home to pursue her dream of acting, eventually achieving renown in her country as the “Jewel of Actresses.”
Ten years after writing that book, the playboy author of “On the Art of the Cinema” sat across the glass table from Shin and Choi, two real filmmakers. He blamed misunderstandings by thoughtless officials for their unfriendly four-year North Korean welcome. He also apologized for taking so long to get back to them personally, saying it had been busy at the office.
The idea came to Kim, he said, when he heard that Seoul’s repressive, militaristic Park regime had closed down Shin Films. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to bring him here,’” he said. Infiltrating Shin Films with agents posing as business partners, Kim explained how he lured the two to Repulse Bay, Hong Kong. First Choi disappeared on a trip to discuss an acting job. Then, on the way to dinner one night, Shin had a sack filled with a chloroform-like substance pulled over his head. With that, Kim had imported the best film talent the peninsula had to offer.
But Choi had come to the meeting with Kim prepared, according to her husband’s memoir. She had purchased a cassette recorder at a nearby market for the party inner circle, and smuggled it past the guards of Kim’s lair. It lay in her handbag, and before it came to a stop, it taped 45 minutes of the dictator laying out his plans for the two: to serve as role models for his industry, and claim they came to the North for the creative freedom. “It goes without saying,” the leader said, “that you must say your defection to the North was of your own free will, and that the South’s democracy is bogus.”
To both Shin and Choi, the cassette of Kim’s 45-minute talk was the key to a safe return home — but posed severe dangers as well. “It was a matter of life or death,” Shin said later, in an interview with a South Korean magazine. They faced execution if the tape was found. In North Korea, there are strict rules against recording or filming the top leaders of the party. After the couple had been released, the tapes were eventually broadcast and discussed in South Korea.
And without the tape, Shin said, “I could not dare to return to [South Korea] without evidence that I had been kidnapped to the North. If [the Seoul government] charged me with entering the North on my own and cooperating with the North Koreans, I would have had no evidence to deny it.”
But coming home was a long way away. For now, Shin Films was back open for business — this time in Pyongyang.
“The capitalist cinema, which promotes a few ‘popular stars’ to curry favor with the audience, is in essence a reactionary art form which reduces the stars to puppets and the film to a commodity. There cannot be a genuine creative spirit, and the beautiful flower of art cannot bloom …” – “On the Art of the Cinema”
“Shall we make Mr. Shin one of our regular guests?” Kim asked the crowd at a birthday party for one of his generals, after Shin’s career, and life, was given its new lease. A lot of cognac was being drunk. The general in question was boasting that he could take Pusan in a week, tops. Military men marched in a circular review, saluting Kim. On stage, a bevy of young women jumped up and down screaming, “Long live the Great Leader!” Most jarring of all was when Kim shook his arm and made this aside, pointing at the display of fawning: “Mr. Shin, all that is bogus. It’s just pretense.”
This puzzling confession, Shin writes, lingered in his mind as he drove in a Mercedes to the new office of Shin Films. Soon he’d be entrusted with an annual paycheck of $3 million for personal or professional use, even as he formulated an escape plan. By following the advice for directors in “On the Art of the Cinema” — “BE LOYAL TO THE PARTY AND PROVE YOURSELVES WORTHY OF THE TRUST IT PLACES IN YOURSELF” — he would hope for some opportunity to escape, maybe during a trip to an Eastern Bloc film festival.
Sometimes resigned to his stay, Shin took comfort in his increasing material well-being, and in making movies again. When it came to choosing subject matter, he told the Seoul Times in 2001 that there were “fewer restrictions than is commonly believed.” He said he even introduced the first kiss to the military-centric North Korean cinema.
All ideas, however, were approved by Kim Jong Il as arms of his ideology, and were developed in story conferences with him. The dictator wanted to make crossover movies that would simultaneously project a fearsome image to the world while somehow improving how North Korea was perceived. He wouldn’t listen when Shin told him that shrill, anti-Japanese movies would not find widespread appeal.
Shin was free to fly to East Berlin for location shots — though shadowed by ever-present escorts. He recalls walking past the U.S. Embassy with his wife, who tugged at his sleeve and made a face suggesting they run for it.
“What’s the matter with you?” he hissed. “I will not make an attempt unless it’s one hundred percent certain. If they caught us, we’d be dead.”
Besides, he was taking his new career seriously, and was eager to get work done. He even claims that in 1984 he was able to produce the finest film of his career: “Runaway,” the tragic story of a wandering Korean family of 1920s Manchuria, coping with Japanese oppression and the dishonesty of their neighbors.
After that, however, came a very different kind of movie. Loosely based on a legend of the 14th century Koryo monarchy, “Pulgasari” owes much to “Godzilla.” He invited some monster-movie veterans from Japan to come to his studio, which had swelled to 700 employees, to help with the picture. When Kim guaranteed their safety, they came to work on “Pulgasari,” including Kempachiro Satsuma, the second actor to wear the Godzilla suit, who soon dressed up as the lumbering, google-eyed Pulgasari, who scatters imperialists to the winds but also finds time to help carry the people’s firewood.
Pulgasari, in fact, is definitely a monster of the people. When the wicked king oppresses the people, a jailed blacksmith molds a tiny character out of rice, declaring he will use the last spark of his creative power to bring the doll to life.
As the farmers are starving under the king’s rule, the doll, Pulgasari, eats iron and grows. The cherubic toddler Pulgasari soon grows into a horned beast whose clawed foot is the size of a person. And since this is a movie made under the guidelines of “On the Art of the Cinema,” there are seemingly endless shots of the peoples’ folk dances. During these, Pulgasari can be seen brooding on the outskirts of the festivities, relaxing against a hill and looking ridiculous.
Finally, Pulgasari leads the farmers’ army in an assault on the king’s fortress — and against thousands of North Korean military troops who were mobilized and dressed up as extras. Ultimately, the king uses his experimental anti-Pulgasari weapon, the Lion Gun. (It’s hard not to think “nuke” when the hammy villain delights in his new acquisition.) But the enterprising Pulgasari swallows the missile and shoots it back at his oppressors. Finally, the king is crushed beneath a huge falling column.
Then the movie becomes curiously ambiguous. The beloved Pulgasari turns on his own people. Still hungry for iron after his victory, Pulgasari begins eating the people’s tools. The confusing conclusion seems to find salvation in the spirit of the people. When the blacksmith’s daughter tearfully pleads with Pulgasari to “go on a diet,” he seems to find his conscience, and puzzlingly shatters into a million slow-motion rocks. Then, inexplicably, a glowing blue Pulgasari child is born, waddling out of the ocean. It’s a terrifically bad movie.
The movie can be read in two ways. On one hand, it is a cautionary tale about what happens when the people leave their fate in the hands of the monster, a capitalist by dint of his insatiable consumption of iron. But it is also tempting to read the monster as a metaphor for Kim Il Sung, hijacking the “people’s revolution” to ultimately serve his purposes. Wondered a fan at StompTokyo.com, “Were these, as some commentators have speculated, Shin’s attempt at subversive editorializing on the conditions in the country?” Now, of course, “Pulgasari,” approved and funded by North Korea’s even more dangerously unstable current leader, seems eerily prophetic.
Nonetheless, when the movie was delivered to Kim, he saw it as a great victory. Trucks pulled up to Shin Films to unload pheasants, deer and wild geese for the movie crew to feast on. Word came from Pyongyang — “The Dear Comrade Leader was delighted with Pulgasari” — and many of the workers were moved to tears at the praise.
“The feelings must be continually built up into the decisive moment for action is reached, and they can be brought to a head. Only in this way is it possible to generate powerful dramatic tension and emotional excitement. If the emotions … do not come to a head at the right moment, they will fail to make any impression on the audience, because they will lack credibility.” – “On the Art of the Cinema”
Genghis Khan, or more specifically, John Wayne as Genghis Khan in the notoriously awful “The Conqueror,” was the inspiration for Shin’s last collaboration with Kim. (“The Conqueror,” meanwhile, had its own grim nuclear coda: During filming in Utah, winds blew radiation onto the set from nearby nuclear bomb testing grounds. Many of the cast and crew — including Wayne — may have contracted cancer as a result.)
“I was sickened at seeing that movie,” Shin Sang-Ok said in 1999. “I did not like American actors appearing in the movie with mustaches attached beneath their big noses.” He had long wanted to make an authentically Mongolian or at least Asian version. In Kim Jong Il he found a producer who shared his enthusiasm for the subject of invading hordes. They agreed that this follow-up to “Pulgasari” would make a good export, even if it didn’t meet with the approval of Kim’s father as a tool for thought control. As Heginbotham puts it: “By all accounts, [Kim] enjoys movies that his people certainly would never be allowed to watch.”
Shin convinced Kim that the film would have more marketability if distributed by a European country, rather than unfashionable North Korea. So plans were made for a joint venture with a company in Austria. Soon, Kim would trust the director to travel to Western Europe for a business meeting.
As a trip to Vienna approached, Shin writes, a plan began to form. They had no doubts about wanting to leave their comfortable lifestyle. “To be in Korea living a good life ourselves and enjoying movies while everyone else was not free was not happiness, but agony,” he writes. Then they boarded a plane for Vienna, never to return.
The next month, the New York Times reported that two South Korean film legends had emerged in Baltimore to meet with American reporters, relating “a story they found more bizarre than a screenplay.” Shin and Choi first turned up at an American Embassy in Vienna. During a business trip, they’d been able to escape with the help of a Japanese movie critic friend of theirs — who has only been identified in his report by a codename, “K.” Meeting him for lunch, they fled by taxi to the American Embassy, shaking off one of Kim’s agents in another taxi.
After the embarrassing escape of his star propagandists, Kim Jong Il shelved “Pulgasari” and every other Shin film. The monster movie was not seen outside the country until 1998, when, amid a dawning feeling of openness in North Korean relations with the rest of Asia, another Japanese critic campaigned for its release — as an important work deserving of more attention, and a source of box-office dollars for the North’s disastrous economy. It bombed. In Seoul, a total of about 1,000 people saw it during its limited release.
Shin Sang-Ok remains controversial. At the Pusan International Film Festival in 2001, a screening was planned for his favorite work, “Runaway.” But the public prosecutor of Seoul halted the showing by invoking South Korea’s harsh National Security Law, which bans any action that could benefit the North.
Shin has worked hard to dispel any impression that he remains friends with his ex-executive producer. In an open letter to the South Korean president following the Sept. 11 attacks, he wrote that his first reaction to the World Trade Center collapse was that it was in Kim Jong Il’s nature to do the same to Seoul. Protesting a thawing in relations, and contending that Kim had not changed, he warned against being fooled by the North Korean leader. “It is inevitable that North Korea will collapse,” he wrote. “Then how will it end? In a suicidal explosion.”
Kim Jong Il continues to issue bold words of guidance to his filmmakers. His words are reprinted on a gigantic placard outside the Revolutionary Museum of the Ministry of Culture on the outskirts of Pyongyang. One says, “MAKE MORE CARTOONS.” Nearby is an enormous statue of Kim’s father, surrounded by filmmakers and a gargantuan movie camera.
His export hopes continually dashed, Kim Jong Il still finds a way to make about 60 films a year. He invites potential distributors to screenings in Pyongyang, the BBC reports, only to be told that the material he’s pitched just won’t appeal to Western sensibilities. Now, having kicked weapons inspectors out of his country, and engaging in a dangerous game of chicken with the West, he seems to have given up hope that he can sway anyone through the art of cinema. And that, ultimately, might prove an ominous sign of things to come.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)