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In this movie, North Korean defector calls the shots

Chae Myeong-min was a spy in North Korea before escaping to South Korea. Now he is directing a film based on his life, with a crew composed only of fellow North Korean defectors.

June 05, 2009|Ju-min Park | Park works in The Times' Seoul Bureau.

SEOUL — When former North Korean spy-turned-movie director Chae Myeong-min went looking for actors for a film based on his life, he included a caveat:

South Koreans need not apply.

In a domestic movie industry where South Koreans traditionally play their Northern cousins, the 50-person crew for the film "Choice" features only North Korean defectors.

Chae says he has seen enough movies depicting life across the DMZ to know that South Koreans fail to capture the harsh reality. They fake the accent and cannot perform from the heart, unable to fathom the famine and brutality suffered by ordinary North Koreans, he says.

What the amateur cast lacks in training, it makes up for in insight, he believes.

"It does not mean that we don't like to work with South Koreans," said Chae, 44, who escaped to the South in 2004. "We want to tell the outside world about the truth of our real story."

"Choice" tells the tale of a North Korean government agent whose lover is caught trying to defect and is sent to prison. The agent finds himself at a crossroads: Should he rescue his lover and flee North Korea, or remain loyal to leader Kim Jong Il?

Chae appears distracted when asked about his project. He says little about his role as a spy, other than to acknowledge that he worked for the North Korean version of the CIA.

He says the movie's story is a collaboration. Although the plot partly reflects the life of the director, who says he was tortured in North Korea for reasons he doesn't explain, it also contains bits of the lives of others involved in the project.

When Chae arrived in Seoul, he worked as a producer at a radio station run by defectors. But he continued to dream of making a movie about his homeland.

Even while in North Korea he had thought of writing down his experiences but, as a spy, had been forbidden to do so. After he fled, he was too afraid for the family he left behind. For years, he used a pseudonym out of concern that North Korean authorities would harass his elderly parents.

When they died, he dropped the pseudonym. Then he went to work recording his life story.

Friends weren't encouraging about his script. They called his project a pipe dream, reminding Chae that he had no money to make a movie.

Then he got lucky. He met Jeon Myeong-ho, a fellow defector who was running a matchmaking service with his wife. The pair went to work collecting contributions from other defectors. Jeon, who became project manager, chipped in some of his profits from the matchmaking business (a move that initially didn't go over well with his wife).

They have been able to complete only half the film, which they eventually hope to bring to the United States. Chae says American moviegoers are more interested in North Korean human rights than are those in South Korea.

"A box-office record in South Korea does not matter to us," Jeon said. "We will get this movie to Americans first."

In the meantime, Chae has been forced to improvise. A scene set in a North Korean prison, for example, was shot at a police station outside Seoul.

He said he will persevere. "I will keep shooting even if I have to sell my house."

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