Shin Sang-ok

Korea's historical giant toppled

Director Shin Sang-ok, a central figure in Korean film history who was abducted to North Korea in the 1970s and who later worked in Hollywood, died Wednesday in Seoul. He was 80.

A leading figure of Korea’s Golden Age, Shin is best known for the films “A Flower in Hell” (1958), “The Houseguest and My Mother” (1961), and “Eunuch” (1967), which were screened in major retrospectives at the Pusan International Film Festival in 2001 and MOMA in New York in 2002. He also founded Shin Films, which at its height in the early 1960s ranked as one of the largest production companies in Asia.

By the 1970s, he had come in frequent conflict with Korea’s military government. Then, in a bizarre turn of events, his wife Choi Eun-hee and later Shin himself were separately abducted and transported to North Korea. At the encouragement of President Kim Jong-il, he would eventually make seven films in the North, including the socialist monster movie “Bulgasari” which has since been released in Japan and South Korea. Shin and his wife escaped to the U.S. Embassy in Vienna in 1986.

Shin later worked in Hollywood as an executive producer on several of the “3 Ninjas” sequels and on “The Gardener” (1998) under the name Simon Sheen. He also served as a jury member at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994.

He returned to Korea in 2000, where he shot his final film, “Winter Story” in 2002.

Shin had received a liver transplant in early 2004, but his condition took a sudden turn for the worse in recent weeks. He is survived by his wife Choi Eun-hee — a leading actress of the 1950s and 60s — two sons, and two daughters.