When a distinguished artist passes at a ripe old age, people tend to respond with the nostalgic claim that “along with him, the whole era has gone!”
Usually this is merely a sentimental exaggeration — the natural death of a particular person rarely signifies real social change.
But the recent passing of the People’s Artist and Labor Hero Choe Chang Su comes very close to marking the end of times which have passed and will likely never return.
A country-bumpkin with little personal ambitions who, nevertheless, grew into an actor of national acclaim, a diamond in the rough discovered and cultivated by the leader of his country, a personal protégé of Kim Jong Il – Choe’s unusual biography is in fact quite typical of a very special era in North Korean cinema.
The only original sources of Choe Chang Su’s biography which we have at our disposal, at least for now, is the official information provided in North Korean encyclopedias and his own autobiographical article “The teacher and the hero” published in 1998.
Official sources are characteristically laconic about details of Choe’s personal life. Choe Chang Su, they claim, was born 15 May 1942 in the city of Seongjin, Northern Hamgyeon province, to a poor peasant’s family and as the ninth of 11 siblings.
He graduated from primary and middle school in Kyeongsong, then in 1959 graduated from Cheongjin mining technical college and for a while worked in geological surveys. In 1962 he began work as a local policeman in Kyeonseong county police department and in 1966 was employed as an actor in Korea’s Artistic Film Studio.
Born the only son among many sisters in a poor peasant’s family, he saw his parents work hard to keep his belly full
Choe’s own article, despite its brevity and political content, brings to light to some facts on his rise in the intellectual scene and the problems which he faced while there, as well as his interactions with Kim Jong Il.
In tune with the North Korean tradition of autobiographies, this article by the awardee of the highest title in the DPRK is utterly modest. It contains none of the hidden bragging or slandering of rivals so typical in the memoirs of distinguished people.
Rather than presenting himself a self-made man of iron will, determination, or extraordinary talent, Choe Chang Su portrays himself as a non-significant person of low origin who became prominent only due to the benevolence of the Dear Leader.
From early childhood, Choe writes, he showed great interest in arts, yet he could not even imagine that his hopes and ideals would result in a career.
Born the only son among many sisters in a poor peasant’s family, he saw his parents work hard to keep his belly full. His father worked at the local pottery factory, while his mother worked on the land. Ultimately, his most daring ambition was to repay this moral debt to his parents.
In his article, Choe does not mention attending a technical college or working in geological surveys. He only mentions his graduation from school and then his work at the local factory.
After a few years, Choe claims, his local party organization sent him to his county’s party school, after which he was dispatched to the local police department and worked for four years as a policeman.
Then a miracle happened. Choe Chang Su was approached by an unknown cadre who came with a suggestion: would he be interested in working in cinema?
The proposal came as a surprise, with Choe asking in astonishment whether it was possible to become an actor with no knowledge of films. The cadre told that he should not worry about that and that what was most important was his determination. The cadre photographed Choe and left for Pyongyang with his photo.
A few months later, an order from the cultural department of the county people’s committee was issued, which stated that Choe Chang Su had been called to a North Korean film studio. The young policeman found himself on the train heading for Pyongyang.
This Cinderella-like story at first seemed to Choe a lucky coincidence. He came to learn that his niece worked at a train station and had accidentally met the said cadre. The niece always admired Choe’s appearance and during a casual talk with the cadre, told him about her extraordinary handsome uncle.
However, Choe later found out that it was not the interference of his niece which had changed his destiny forever.
Rather, it was the plan of the Great Leader, who intended to reform cinematography by imbuing it with the people’s spirit. He had sent his emissaries all over the country to find regular people suitable for acting.
The Great Leader intended to reform cinematography by imbuing it with the people’s spirit
The process which Choe describes in his memoirs was what later North Korean sources referred to as a “revolution” in North Korean cinema under Kim Jong Il.
The core meaning of this “revolution” was a full blood transfusion in North Korean cinema. The old cultural élites, with solid pre-Liberation reputations and suspect connections to Soviet and Japanese artistic circles, were to be replaced by local novices unrelated to the art, fame, and things foreign, and to be indebted to the Leader alone.
Choe’s case perfectly fits into this idea. A handsome local policeman from a poor peasant family with few prospects of his own rose to the level of film star by the sheer will of the Leader. In the eyes of Kim Jong Il, Choe Chang Su was to be trusted.
Sure enough, the blood transfusion had its price, and it was a temporary decline in the artistic quality of North Korean cinema. Choe did not exaggerate when he claimed that in his 20s he was totally ignorant of the cinematic arts.
Indeed, there is a radical difference in quality between the first North Korean movies made by established professionals (it is enough to mention “My Homeland” about which I wrote in a previous article) and the films made by freshmen like Choe.
For all his youthful handsomeness, Choe’s lack of professional skills was especially visible in films like “Central Forward” (1967) or “Yeong Su and Yeon Ok are Searching for the Socialist Motherland” (1969). Sure enough, competitors did not fail to pick up on these shortcomings.
In his article, Choe mentions that his first role was in the film “Cheo Hak Sin’s family,” made in 1966, the same year when he moved to Pyongyang. Apparently, up until that moment, the ex-policeman had undergone no formal acting training.
Nevertheless, the result seemed to satisfy his supervisors, and the work continued. However, the second attempt was less fortunate. Choe states that he played the lead role in a film about the war, but that he “could not perform it properly” and, as a result, “raised the worries” of the Dear Leader.
Choe does not mention the title of this unlucky film, and North Korean cinematic histories do not contain any references to him starring in any films in 1967 and 1968.
We can only guess that it may have been one of the hapless films of the transitional period that policymakers of Juche Korea considered politically inappropriate for North Korean audiences.
According to political traditions, all participants of the unlucky project were to be subjected to criticism, and the criticism was to be harsh and personal.
In his article, Choe recollects that he often found himself under a continuous “thunderstorm of criticism.” Though the actor does not mention the names of his tormentors, among them were likely older professionals who intended to break the spirit of this country cop and drive him away from their professional sphere.
During this campaign of personal defamation, exacerbated by professional rivalry, the question of how it was that a person of such limited talent and experience, barely able to play even side characters, came to be trusted with major roles was raised repeatedly.
The young actor believed himself to be a total failure. He seriously considered quitting the world of cinema and running away from the studio, to go work in a distant cooperative farm or a factory.
Alas, what Choe reports here were recognizable feelings in the brutal epoch of “mutual criticism,” which often drew its victims to suicide (see my article “Socialism with a human face” on how things eventually changed).
The young actor believed himself to be a total failure, and he seriously considered quitting the world of cinema
However, Choe’s luck did not end here. In 1969, the studio received the news that a new film “Yeong Su and Yeon Ok are Searching for the Socialist Motherland” was to be made, and that Kim Jong Il had “recommended” that Choe Chang Su perform the major role of the South Korean boy Yeong Su there.
That “recommendation” quickly shushed the dirty mouths of Choe’s critics.
Apparently, the Leader was willing to give the young actor another chance, but Choe considered it more than just a ray of hope to him personally. Rather, it was a benevolent message to other newcomers, as well as a warning to their older competitors.
The film was produced in Hamhung, in the summer. Despite the scorching heat, the Leader used to come to the studio and personally guide the filming, correcting minor details, problems with the screen lines, etc. And Choe did his best. After the film was finished, it was shown to the fatherly Leader, and Kim Il Sung generously praised the young actors.
This success cemented Choe’s position in North Korean cinema. After this film, the actor says, he received only major roles in his next films.
Choe Chang Su did not let down his high protector. With each new film, his professionalism grew and he soon became one of North Koreans’ favorite actors, whose charm was even appreciated by professionals like kidnapped South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok.
SECRETS OF CHOE CHANG SU’S CHARM
In the eyes of contemporary South Korean audiences, Choe Chang Su, with his rough, irregular facial features, would hardly be deemed attractive. But to North Koreans, with their different beauty standards, he was irresistible: a handsome man with a kind face, who carried an aura of reflectiveness and wholesomeness, and an unthreatening, thoughtful mightiness.
Spontaneity is an essential feature of North Korean protagonists, and Choe’s characters are all endowed with it. An ex soccer-champion in “Central Forward” who shrugs off his apathy and rushes into the game as if to a battle, a bright-eyed colonel Ri Tae Un in “Wolmido,” who stands tall against enemies in his last suicidal combat, the rebellious butcher in “Rim Kkok Jong“ who protects the poor and oppressed — they all are beaming with crushing energy.
This energy, however, is never rude. Choe’s characters rarely push or roar at their opponents, like many righteous protagonists in North Korean films: they raise their objections in a firm but steady voice; rather than being angry, they are disappointed.
One of Choe’s hallmarks was his characteristic hurt look which his heroes carried in moments of great mental pain
His warm charm made Choe Chang Su ill-suite for negative roles: the only villain he ever played was the side character Kim Chang Ryong in the serial “Nameless heroes” (also known as “Unsung Heroes”), a role in which he does not shine. Even through the mask of this villain, Choe Chang Su’s characteristic kind smile often beamed.
In all probability, the actor was chosen for this role due to the striking physical similarity with the historical character — a notorious collaborator and right-hand man to South Korea’s first President Syngman Rhee.
One of Choe’s hallmarks was his characteristic hurt look which his heroes carried in moments of great mental pain, when their trust is betrayed or their conscientiousness is unclear.
In their unhappy moments, Choe’s characters often perform acts of self-destruction. In “Nation and Destiny“ his character, tormented by pangs of guilt, makes several attempts at suicide; in “the Year of Change” (1983) Choe’s character squeezes a glass cap in a moment of distress aimed at bureaucrats who halt industrial plans prescribed by the Great Leader.
As he grew old, Choe rarely played intelligentsia – these roles were reserved for his more elaborate colleagues, like Kim Ryeun Ryun, the star of the spy serial “Nameless heroes,” and Kim Yong Hyun, nicknamed “Mr. President” after he played the role of South Korean President Park Chung-hee in “Nation and Destiny.” The actor gained weight, and his face begun to look much wider and his nose thicker than it did in his younger years.
What Choe Chang Su had always badly needed was fitness training, yet that was not what North Korean cinema makers ever cared about. In their eyes, extra weight was even welcomed as adding a desirable solidity to the actor’s appearance.
Due to this negligence, to the age of 40, Choe had lost the sporting shape of his youth and looked like a regular fat ajeossi with a protruded belly.
This lack of fitness seriously hampered his performance in “Nation and Destiny, in which Choe, playing some moments of his character’s youth, jumps over the hedge panting, huffing, and puffing.
(In a similar way, this lack of exercise took its toll on his handsome colleague Kim Ryeun Ryun, who had obtained an apparent hunched back in his late 30s, and Kim Cheol, Choe’s partner in “Central forward.“)
By the mid-1980s, when romance eventually came to North Korean cinema, Choe was already in his 40s and was too old and fat to play a love interest. Nevertheless, he played such roles and did it surprisingly well, with tact and gentility.
I have written about the extremely romantic marital relations of his character Choe Hyeon Deok in “Nation and Destiny.” Even better was the bittersweet love life of Choe’s character Rim KkokJong with another lowborn, kisaeng So Hong, played by the People’s Actress Kim Jeong Hwa. This talented duet masterfully portrayed the doomed relationship of an insurgent hunted by government forces and an aging entertainer woman.
Luckily for North Koreans, Juche media does not feature gossip columns, and any possible details of Choe’s personal life which could contradict this scenic image as a loyal lover were hidden from the public.
Millions of North Korean women melted over romantic scenes involved Choe Chang Su, be it Choe Hyeon Deok’s dance with his wife in “Nation and Fate” or Rim Kkok Jong’s farewell to So Hong, when she lies in his hands, pierced by an enemy arrow, and thanks Rim for everything, promising to wait for him in the next life.
THE LEADER’S PROTÉGÉ
For the rest of Kim Jong Il’s days, the North Korean leader remained Choe’s personal protector, considering him, even if exaggeratedly, a “worldwide genius actor.”
Choe recollects with gratitude that while “Nation and Destiny” was being made Kim Jong Il took pains to meticulously analyze the script, trying to add persuasiveness to every gesture of the actor.
Millions of North Korean women melted over romantic scenes involved Choe Chang Su
Kim Jong Il was similarly attentive to Choe’s private life. In one example, Kim Jong Il was reported to have watched a film in which Choe had starred, and found that the actor’s face was atypically languid.
Kim Jong Il insisted that the actor undergo a thorough medical examination, which revealed a serious sickness. The actor had special treatment that lasted for several months, which eventually cured the illness. Even his mother and his wife had missed the danger signs, Choe said.
Along with the title of Labor Hero in 1992, Kim Jong Il presented Choe Chang Su with a luxury car, typically only given to “cadres who perform important duties for the country.”
Though for much of the 90s Choe stopped making films (perhaps a consequence of said illness), he occupied an important position as director of the actors’ department at the Korean Artistic Film Studio.
Choe emphasizes that such treatment happened at a time when international socialism collapsed and many actors in ex-socialist countries were left on their own — jobless, and forced to sell their talents in other countries. For this reason, he considered himself very lucky indeed.
COLLAPSE OF JUCHE CINEMA?
Choe Chang Su’s 1998 article reminds us of a process that continues in North Korean culture: the slow collapse of the carefully constructed empire of Juche cinema.
With the death of Kim Jong Il, cinema has lost its importance in the eyes of the North Korean leadership. The new leader has different cultural priorities and directs most of his attention and funding into music and sports.
Meanwhile, the film industry is running on old inertia, visibly slowing down.
New TV dramas which, at first, seemed to supplement the lack of new films are few and far between, and Central TV and theatres continue to screen the same old films and little new.
The older stars, like Choe Chang Su, are leaving this world, and younger actors are forced to leave the profession for the lack of work and prestige: it is enough to mention the talented actress Pak Mi Hyang of “Schoolgirl’s diary” (2004) who has since left cinema, or the young actress Kang Il Sim in “Little school’s sports ground” (2014) who is now working as a TV correspondent.
Given the self-reliance of North Korean culture, this hollowing-out of one of the most important and popular areas of mass culture — domestic cinema — could have potentially major repercussions for the North Korean system.
And, even putting politics aside, it is a shameful waste of human resources which could be used, with a little polishing, for decent cultural purposes.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
When a distinguished artist passes at a ripe old age, people tend to respond with the nostalgic claim that “along with him, the whole era has gone!”
Usually this is merely a sentimental exaggeration -- the natural death of a particular person rarely signifies real social change.
Tatiana Gabroussenko obtained her PhD in East Asian Studies at the Australian National University. She is currently a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University, Seoul. Her latest book Soldiers on the Cultural Front: Developments in the early history of North Korean literature and literary policy, was included in the Choice magazine list of Outstanding Academic Titles of 2012.