Dear Shin Sang-ok, I keep thinking about you. When I was at university, I wrote a short story—-which was not a short story because it ended up being fifty pages, one of the first indications of my future failure as a short story writer—-based on what happened to you. You were a filmmaker, and in 1978, you and your ex-wife were kidnapped by Kim Jong-il and taken to North Korea to make movies for the regime. You made Pulgasari, that monster movie known as the North Korean counterpart to Godzilla. Godzillaâ€™s body is sometimes prehistoric, sometimes a result of atomic radiation, sometimes cobbled together nuclear refuse. Sometimes Godzillaâ€™s a villain, sometimes a hero. Sometimes he wants to destroy everything, sometimes he has to save everything. All the lengthy debates on the consequences and attendant horrors of nuclear power are in him made flesh—-well, flesh, along with: scale, dorsal fin, tail. The monster is always the one carrying the warning in its body—-as its body. Monster meaning to show; French: monstrer, montrer. The monster always has something vital and painful to show you about the world you live in. The world you die in.
Dear Shin Sang-ok, your Pulgasari wasnâ€™t an aquatic-terrestrial-transitional-form, but a doll made out of rice that came to life, when a little blood from a little girl dripped on it. (It seems that so much in cinema depends on blood from little girls, am I recalling this wrong?) Pulgasari ages in the film; heâ€™s a baby, then an adolescent, then a teenager. Pulgasari the anti-capitalist anti-monarchist monster: he saves the leader of a farmersâ€™ revolt from execution; he helps the peasantsâ€™ guerrilla army take down the kingâ€™s forces; he demolishes the kingâ€™s castle, crushes the king. Of course, by the end of the movie he has become too strong, too greedy; he has to be stopped. The task is borne by the same little girl who brought him to life. Most people seem to think Pulgasari is Kim Jong-il. Gestation of a totalitarian dictator. Theyâ€™re certainly right. But Iâ€™m more interested in the girl, whose name is Ami. She hides herself inside an iron bell, knowing that Pulgasari, who eats iron, will eat the bell and her in it. Once she has been eaten and is inside his body, she tearfully begs him to stop. Begs him from inside him. To disappear from the earth. To come with her. Itâ€™s the kind of movie where words have power: Pulgasari begins to crumble.
In the end, whatâ€™s left is his baby form, and then that disappears, too, into a blue light; and then that disappears, too, into Amiâ€™s dead body. A monster that comes from a woman and returns to a woman. Women who have vital and painful things to show you about the world you live in. Die in.
Dear Shin Sang-ok, what I only recently discovered is that in your post-kidnapping life, you went to the States, where you wrote, directed and/or produced a couple of the films in the Three Ninjas franchise, which I watched and loved as a kid. Those three kids who were supposed to be the grandchildren of wise-old-Asian-man as played by Victor Wong. Three quapa ninjas, played by white child actors. (Sound vaguely familiar?) Talking to Jackie Wang recently, we agreed that the nineties were a fantastic time for Oriental fetishizing in film and television. But then, itâ€™s always a great time for Oriental fetishizing.
(But surprisingly, I think I prefer the new Karate Kid, with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith, to the old one.)
Dear Shin Sang-ok, you worked on those Three Ninja films under a pseudonym: Simon Sheen. I get it: Sheen sounds like Shin, and I suppose you can hear Sang-ok in Simon. But I also wonder: when you were so carefully passing, did you also want to be one of the Sheen brothers, so golden in the 80s and 90s? My favorite Sheen was always Emilio Estevez, who doesnâ€™t do anything about his name and how it outs his immigrant family.
(I’ve only vaguely heard about the Charlie Sheen affair, so I don’t feel equipped to comment on it here.)
Dear Shin Sang-ok, what were you trying to do in America, when you went to America? You and your wife escaped your North Korean captors on a supervised business trip to Vienna, before Pulgasari was finished; your name was then erased from it. You sued to have your name put back, and the only information I can find out about it says that you failed. So you remade Pulgasari as an American film, as a writer, in The Adventures of Galgameth. Thereâ€™s no Ami in the American film. Like many American films, the main character has to be a young boy. Adventure being a gendered genre.
Dear Shin Sang-ok, tell me about your American life. I want to know; I donâ€™t want to know. I think you get that it hurts to know things. For most immigrants, the heaviest thing you bring is what you know. My father was friends with Ferdinand Marcos—-his first wife was a Marcos—-and then all my life he wanted to kill himself for what he knew and saw, and then he finally did. I told him I would follow and then he made me promise that I wouldnâ€™t. Dear Shin Sang-ok, I think you know that guilt is like the iron that Pulgasari eats and eats so that it makes up his entire body. His entire flesh. My entire flesh. Dear Shin Sang-ok, what do you do when youâ€™re the one who survived? Dear Shin Sang-ok, the only other movie Iâ€™ve watched of yours is Jiokhwa. The American title is Flower in Hell. It was made in 1958, twenty years before you were kidnapped. When I was nine, my father kidnapped me, too. And took me to the Philippines. America didnâ€™t fit, but I wasnâ€™t part of the life he was willing to abandon. We came back, though, because he realized that we were both aliens everywhere; there wasnâ€™t going to be a home for either of us anywhere. Tagline for a love story: “We can be melancholy together anywhere, why not California.”
Dear Shin Sang-ok, in the story I wrote, you donâ€™t survive. I mean, the character doesnâ€™t survive. He tries to fight back and he gets shot. I abandoned the story because it was going on for too long. Because it wasnâ€™t a good short story, meaning: it wasnâ€™t contained, it didnâ€™t know what it was saying or how to say it, it kept demanding endless random pockets of violence and stillness and lunacy. Long sequences where the character just eats and doesnâ€™t think. Doesnâ€™t think about still being alive. One thing Iâ€™ve learned about being alive when Iâ€™m not really supposed to be, when my life is a promise I made to someone who isnâ€™t here anymore and with whom I can no longer negotiate, is that I donâ€™t know where I am. Dear Shin Sang-ok, I don’t know where I am.
Dear Shin Sang-ok, tomorrow Iâ€™m going to Bavaria, which is not Vienna, but there are similarities. Because in both Bavaria and Austria, you have to greet people with â€œGruss GÃ¶tt,â€ instead of â€œGuten Tag.â€ Gruss GÃ¶tt, greet God, may God greet you. Theyâ€™re conservative Catholic regions. Theyâ€™re racist, too. Iâ€™m not looking forward to it. Gruss GÃ¶tt, greet God. Dear Shin Sang-ok: not yet.
Dear Shin Sang-ok, what kind of monster am I going to have to be, or be eaten by, today? Dear Shin Sang-ok, I can only write to you because youâ€™re dead. Because youâ€™re dead, I know youâ€™re there.