Comic about North Korea: In the clutches of the dictator

The comic “Madame Choi and the Monsters” tells of the spectacular kidnapping of two film stars from South Korea to North Korea.


From the comic “Madame Choi and the Monsters” Comic: Modern Edition

It started in 1976 with the theft of some rolls of film in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. The thief took the footage, including the monster film “Bulgasari,” just across the border into North Korea to personally present to his “beloved leader, the sun of our fatherland.”

Another robbery happened two years later. While visiting Hong Kong, famous South Korean actress Choi Eun Hee is kidnapped and taken north, where she is met by Kim Jong Il. He was then the head of propaganda and film production in North Korea, which is ruled by his father, the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung. Shortly thereafter, Choi’s ex-husband, actor and director Shin Sang Ok, is kidnapped in Hong Kong and taken to North Korea…

The graphic novel “Madame Choi and the Monsters”, written by the author and journalist Patrick Spät (graphic novel debut “The Vagabond King”, with Bea Davies, Avant Verlag, 2019) and drawn by the comic book artist Sheree Domingo, is about tremendous events in Korean post-war history. It was long disputed whether the dictator’s son Kim Jong Il actually kidnapped Choi Eun Hee (1926-2018) and Shin Sang Ok (1926-2008) or whether they went to North Korea voluntarily.

The probably best-known film stars of the enemy South Korea have been making films together since the 1950s and had already passed the peak of their two careers in the 70s. But today the double kidnapping is recognized as a fact.

Disappeared in the Golden Cage

For years, the two have been separated in North Korea without learning of each other’s fate. Kim Jong Il claimed to be her fan and to hold her to create “great cinematic art” together with the “teacher Madame Choi”, as he called her.

While Choi was in a golden cage trying to come to terms with the hopeless situation, her husband was being held in a camp. He tried to escape and was then tortured. It wasn’t until 1983 that Kim brought the two together to make films for him – on his terms. It should be the most complex films of their joint work.

Patrick Spät has created an interesting scenario from the historical anecdote that illuminates the circumstances of the time: Also South Korea was long a dictatorship, and Choi, who rose to early fame as an actress and singer, suffered as a young woman from the violence of her first husband, a cameraman. When she meets her second husband, Shin, who is an actor, director and producer, she divorces. Soon both are among the most popular and progressive film stars in Asia. In their films, for example, they address the plight of women, the first South Korean film kiss occurs in their joint film “A Flower in Hell” from 1958.

With the help of the monster, the daughter tries to overthrow the despotic king

During the military dictatorship in the 1970s, they came into conflict with state censorship. Then their relationship falls apart when Shin has an affair. Choi raises her two adopted children alone. They only get together again in North Korea and make seven North Korean films. In 1986 they manage to make a spectacular escape while attending a film festival in Vienna.

A fairy tale as a comment

In a parallel plot, the fantasy fairy tale of “Bulgasari” is retold, which is based on old Korean myths and quotes the 1962 South Korean monster film of the same name. The legendary film is now considered lost and is said to have been one of Kim Jong Il’s favorite films alongside “Rambo”.

Spaet and Domingo’s reinterpretation focuses on a self-confident young woman whose father – a blacksmith – is kidnapped in an imaginary kingdom by his king’s henchmen. With the help of the ever-growing monster Bulgasari, the daughter tries to incite a rebellion against the despotic king and overthrow him. When reading, the realistic plot of Madame Choi is commented on by the plot of the fairy tale, which is similar in terms of motif. In fact, Choi and Shin remade the story under Kim Jong Il in 1985 under the title Pulgasari. It became their highest-grossing North Korean film, in which they offered subtle criticism of Kim.

The narrative structure is largely successful and reflects the recent past of the Korean peninsula in an exaggerated way. Sheree Domingo, who has already made a remarkable debut (Edition Moderne, 2019) with an autobiographically inspired graphic novel with “Ferntalk”, draws her slightly grotesque characters with bold black brushstrokes and selected colors that range between pale shades of blue and a poisonous orange-red for the Monsters change.

Not free from clichés

Some episodes are told a bit too bumpy, too erratic, and a finer nuance in the portrayals of the characters would have been appropriate to avoid slipping into the naive cliché (the “poor, betrayed wife”, the “bad henchman”, the “strong fighter”) to avoid. But it is thanks to the team of illustrator and author that this largely forgotten and yet relevant parable of arbitrary power and female self-empowerment is retold in a refreshing way.

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