Shin Sang-ok, Pioneer of Korean Cinema, Passes Away

Apr.12, 2006

Director Shin Sang-ok, a household name during the 1960s and 1970s, passed away at 11:39 p.m. Tuesday at Seoul National University Hospital due to complications following a liver transplant.

Born in Korea’s northernmost region of North Hamgyeong Province in 1926 during Japan’s colonial rule of the country (1910-45), Shin graduated from an arts school in Tokyo before carving a name for himself as one of the pioneers of Korea’s movie industry. He released his first film in 1952.

Shin was extremely prolific throughout his career, pulling along the fledging Korean film industry during the 1960’s and 70’s. He directed 68 films and produced 169, in addition to working on other productions as a cinematographer. Some of his best works include ‘Chunhyang,’ ‘Evergreen Tree,’ Yeonsangon,’ and ‘Red Scarf.’

Yet none of these classics of Korean cinema quite matches his masterpiece, ‘My Mother and Her Guest,’ which blends Shin’s eye for composition with his painstaking attention to detail to showcase traditional Korean lifestyles framed against eye-catching backdrops.

In 1953, Shin married actress Choi Un-hee, a lifetime companion and kindred spirit with whom he entwined his movie-making career and aspirations. Shin was a new face in the industry when he first met Choi, whose career was in full bloom. Together, the couple embarked on an mutually rewarding odyssey that produced 63 films, making them the most impressive couple in the history of Korean cinema.

The dream went sour, however, in 1975 with a very public divorce after the director was embroiled in a scandal with Oh Soo-mi, an actress some 25 years his junior.

A further twist followed three years later when Choi was abducted by North Korea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering how closely their fates seemed to be bound together, Shin too was kidnapped six months later by the same regime of ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il. Kim, a well-known film fanatic, was said to have obsessed about their talents across the inter-Korean border for years before they were snatched to make propaganda and other pictures.

In 1986, the two made a daring escape that drew the attention of the international media, and later traveled to the U.S. where they worked as producers in Washington and Los Angeles. In many respects, their rollercoaster life mirrored the twists and turns of a movie plot.

Shin returned to Korea in May 1989 and made ‘Mayumi: Virgin Terrorist,’ a film that centered on the bombing of Korean Airlines flight 858 by terrorists and focused on one of the perpetrators of the hijacking, which was believed to have been ordered by North Korea. Shin’s career continued to grow and he was later asked to sit on the jury at the Cannes Film Festival.

Shin had recently been receiving treatment following a liver transplant. His body will lay in state at SNU Hospital until he is buried Saturday.

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