Long before Jang Sun-Woo’s Lies—a comedy of bastinado about lovers who beat pleasure into one another with branches and broom handles—South Korean cinema was already a hotbed of complicated pleasures. Take Shin Sang-Ok’s Eunuch, for example: A top-grossing hit of 1968 and one of that year’s most erotic films, this historical costume drama revolves around incarcerated concubines and enslaved castrati who endure the most excruciating passions (heterosexual and otherwise) in one another’s arms. Widely heralded (then and today) as the “Prince of Korean Cinema,” Shin—currently the subject of an 11-film MOMA showcase—has a résumé overloaded with sensory shocks and surprising reversals of fate.
Born in 1926, and credited with introducing his nation’s film industry to everything from sync sound to CinemaScope to the zoom lens, Shin revolutionized South Korea’s popular cinema with a long string of blockbuster melodramas and period epics in the 1950s and ’60s. When his career began to flag in the early 1970s (the result of exhausted inspiration or his refusal to knuckle under to censorship, depending on who you ask), Shin received an entirely unexpected invitation to work abroad. He and his wife, actress Choi Eun-Hee, were kidnapped by agents of future North Korean president Kim Jong-Il, the most powerful film buff in the non-free world. Five years of incarceration and ideological reconditioning were followed by three years of intensive film production (on bigger sets and with better funding than he’d ever gotten in the South). Eventually, while on a cultural mission to European film festivals in 1986, Shin and Choi finally eluded their captors and were granted political asylum at the U.S. embassy in Vienna.
Though scarcely a definitive overview of Shin’s labyrinthine career (none of the 17 films he directed or produced in North Korea are included), the MOMA series does afford some sense of the filmmaker’s range. My Mother and Her Guest (1961), a charming vision of repressed desire told from the perspective of a precocious eight-year-old girl, betrays something of Shin’s childhood admiration for the films of Marcel Carne and Jean Renoir. The 1958 prostitute classic, A Flower in Hell, shows Shin at his most lurid and indelible; its resurrection at last October’s Pusan International Film Festival gathered far more buzz than current Korean releases. Mayumi Virgin Terrorist (1990)—an international spy caper made by a man who’d only recently escaped from the most isolationist totalitarian nation on earth—is in some ways more shocking than Eunuch. Its plodding pace, dime-store special effects, and stunted sense of casting for the global marketplace (“Special appearance by George Kennedy”) are punctuated with one of the most harrowingly grotesque re-creations of a real-life air disaster in cinematic history.
Shin currently lives and works in Southern California, where the bulk of his livelihood derives from an altogether different sort of interaction with Asian film culture—writing, producing, and directing (under the nom de Hollywood, Simon S. Sheen) installments of Disney’s lucrative kids’ action flick franchise 3 Ninjas.