The story of an Italian/North Korean action movie joint venture.
By Johannes Schönherr.
“Amerinda Est. Presents … Frank Zagarino and Mark Gregory in … Ten Zan – The Ultimate Mission … written and directed by Ted Kaplan,” read the movie’s opening credits in bold white letters, superimposed over aerial shots of a coastline dotted with an abundance of tiny islands. “Starring Sabrina Syan, Rom Kristoff, Charles Borromel …Photography by Mark March… Editor Med Salkin… Action Coordinator Bob Grassen…” follows the list of cast and crew.
Cut to two amphibious landing crafts carrying a bunch of uniformed Asian men through a coastal dune landscape towards a poor Asian village of straw-covered mud-brick huts. The vehicles stop on top of a dune overlooking the village. Two soldiers throw a barrel from one of the tanks, it slowly rolls down to the village and hits the wooden wall of a barn. An evil-looking guy aims a machine gun and shoots at the barrel. It explodes, setting the barn afire. The soldiers storm into the village, gunning around wildly but hitting mainly clay pots, shattering them to smithereens. The villagers scream and try to escape. The soldiers run after two girls. They catch them and line them up with their backs to one of the landing crafts. A helicopter lands and a white guy with an arrogant expression on his face emerges from it. He walks straight to the girls. “Not this one.” he says in English, these being the first words spoken in the film, shoving her aside, “This is the one.” He grabs her chin, looks into her acne-ravaged face. Soldiers from the top of the vehicle grab her, pull her inside and the vehicle drives away, uprooting some trees on the way before the amphibious tanks swim into a branch of the sea in that rugged landscape.
With a start like this, few Western viewers would expect the movie to be anything else than a fairly cheap American production, possibly shot in the Philippines. Afficionados of Italian exploitation cinema would know, however, that “Ted Kaplan” was one of the pseudonyms Italian pulp director Ferdinando Baldi liked to use, alongside noms de plumes like Ferdy Baldwin, Free Baldwin and Sam Livingstone. And they would know that his cast and crew would also use English-sounding pseudonyms – a common practice in Italian exploitation cinema during the 1970s and 80s. If they would be on top of the game, they would know that “Mark Gregory” was Marco Di Gregorio and that “Sabrina Syan” was Sabrina Siani (aka Sabrina Seggiani) – or they would recognize them and possibly some other actors later on in the movie. But would they guess right on the location? Most likely not. There simply aren’t many people out there in the West who would watch that kind of picture and who have any idea that the coastline shown here is to be found near Kaesong, North Korea. The country is left unidentified in the film, North Korean car license plates have their hangul letters taped over, occasional Chinese exit signs are supposed to create further confusion about the shooting location. Nevertheless, it is North Korea!
So, there we are: Italian exploitation meets North Korea! Like Italian exploitation met the Amazon jungle in Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1979), Joe D’Amato‘s (= Aristide Massacessi) Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977) or in Cannibal Ferox by Umberto Lenzi (1980). No place too strange for those wild Italians to indulge in exotic nudity, violence and cannibalism, always hoping to make a quick buck from the patrons of European train station cinemas and American grindhouses.
But no, not quite. While the Amazon jungle provided almost absolute freedom, lots of locations and extras and perhaps some real local bloodshed that could be documented and included in the pictures, the situation in North Korea was quite different. Here, the Italian pulp team met a professional film industry used to run every detail of production according to the strict principles of the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, the movie-mad son of the country’s “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il himself used his often assumed role of “movie producer” to train himself to boss around large numbers of people, training himself to run the whole country as successor to his father some day.
But before going into the production background, let’s finish viewing the film itself.
The plot thickens
The guys in camouflage have taken the girl away. Cut to an older white guy (Urs Althaus) and a middle-aged Asian man in a 1960s American car. They have stopped the car at a high-class archery training ground. The white guy says: “Do you think that this step is unavoidable?” The Asian guy answers: “I don’t think we’ll regret it.” They get out of the car. The Asian guy introduces the white guy as “Professor Larson from the University of Vilnius, Lithuania” to an Asian, who is a “Mr. Shang.” Larson makes a proposal to Shang – he should help stop and eliminate those mercenaries that kidnap young women “for the research and development of new stimulants.”
Cut to the swimming pool in the basement of Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel. Larson and the middle-aged Asian guy are in the water, Shang sitting in a deckchair. An unshaved character enters, Ricky (Rom Kristoff). Shang introduces him as the man who will handle the task of eliminating the mercenaries together with his partner. They both belong to an organization called FSR, “Final Solution Research,” Ricky explains. Ricky accepts the terms of business, unaware that a female spy, employee of the hotel, listens in.
Cut to a train. American action movie actor Frank Zagarino drinks tea in one of the compartments. Suddenly, a sexy chick (Sabrina Siani) steps in. She asks: “Are you Lou Mammoth?” and points a gun at him. Her partner Jason (Marco Di Gregorio), whom we have seen selecting the girl at the village before, enters and tells Lou in no uncertain terms to “go home.” Then, they leave him alone.
Lou arrives at Pyongyang Central Station and is met by Maddy, a cute girl we have briefly seen together with Ricky before. Lou is suddenly kicked in the neck and is taken away while some Asian thug tells the girl to “go home.”
Of course, she hooks up with Ricky and they follow the delivery van with Lou inside. No surprise, Lou is taken to a grain warehouse and beaten up before he frees himself and beats the shit out of his kidnappers. When one of them attacks Lou with a hatch, Maddy shoots him in the neck with a really cool looking crossbow she keeps in a violin case.
A lengthy car chase has the Lou/Ricky crew driving at low speed through a harbor area, trying to escape while the baddies follow them in the delivery van. Both cars prominently feature North Korean license plates but the letters indicating the city/province are taped over with some fantasy graphics. That may be one of the slowest car chases in film history. Nothing gets destroyed on the way and the good guys’ car looks as if it would be heading straight for some automobile museum – it’s a 1940-ish looking vehicle, possibly made in China.
They drive all the way out to the West Sea Barrage, a huge dam system near Nampo, where Lou and Ricky capture a boat and get away while Maddy takes care of the car.
Cut to Professor Larson. He meets Lou in a laboratory full of stuffed animals and delivers a longer speech, explaining to Lou the assignment. Those bad guys, he says, deal with stimulants derived from animals that prolong life and make “life feel like eternal youth.” But, of course, that is just a cover. They also kidnap young women to distill a substance from their throats (It’s true! He says just that!) that can enter the “nucleus of the cell – the DNA,” a process which only the “most perfect” people will survive, all other “self-destruct.” All that is done, he says, for the “breeding of ubermenschen – the new master race.” Lou, he makes clear, has to put a stop to this business.
Meanwhile, the female spy leads the bad guys to Mr. Shang, who is having a sauna in the basement of the Koryo Hotel and they beat him up badly.
Cut to Lou and Ricky, who live in a Buddhist temple cum guest house. They engage in talks about things like the fact that Lou had danced for the 3 years at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet – the “Bullshit Ballet” as Ricky calls it – and other what-have-you-been-doing-since-we-met-the-last-time mercenary memories when suddenly the bad guys attack their building. A big fist/taek-won-do fight ensues with Lou and Ricky sending the baddies home. They leave a bloody bag: Mr. Shang is inside and informs our heroes who the snitch is. Ricky immediately senses danger for Maddy.
While Ricky goes out to kill the snitch (he cuts her throat on a pedestrian bridge in a park and throws her into the water), Lou tries to rescue Maddy from the lurking peril. She leaves the “Dragon Hotel” (the Koryo Hotel, the main tourist hotel of Pyongyang), the same hotel the snitch had worked in, and goes to the subway. A typical Pyongyang subway station with the escalator going down very, very deep and the station being decorated in 1930s Moscow style. The bad guys follow and kidnap her – although Lou had arrived in the last second. They trick him, though, and he is trapped in the train while the baddies get out with the girl at the next stop.
Through Shang, Lou and Ricky have heard where the base of the baddies is. They go there the next morning but not without Ricky telling Lou that Maddy is like a sister to him but not his real sister. He is taking care of her since her parents were killed by some unspecified evil guys who have nothing to do with this movie.
Maddy arrives at the “base,” a military camp, that, if one follows the movements of the jeep taking her there, is somewhere at the end of the “old Korean town” of the Korean Film Studio compound outside of Pyongyang. The camp itself is an even bigger surprise: we all thought that exactly this camp was totally destroyed back in 1987, in the North Korean war action movie Order No. 027! That same night, Lou and Ricky attack the camp and we can see exactly the same fireworks come out of the same positions as they did in Order No. 027!
The baddies however have removed their female guinea pigs from the “base camp” right before our two heroes “destroy” the location, and moved them to another camp – this one being the temple in which a lot of taek-won-do fighting took place between North and South Korean soldiers in Order No. 027.
Here, Glenda (Siani) tells Jason (Marco Di Gregorio) that “My father wants to see you.” They go to visit the father, landing their helicopter on the bus parking lot of the Hyangsan Hotel in the Myohyang Mountains. From there, it is a short ride by jeep to Pohyong Temple, in the movie as well as in reality. A visit to Pohyong Temple is standard for every visitor of North Korea – and it truly is a beautiful temple with a 13-story stone pagoda sporting hundreds of tiny bells, which would be an important Buddhist center/tourist attraction were it not located in North Korea.
Di Gregorio and Siani arrive. Siani says: “Over there” and remains behind. “Over there,” in the main temple building, Jason meets none other than Professor Larson, studying some “ancient” murals with a book and a magnifying glass in his hands. 100% the evil connaisseur…
Larson tells Jason: “Remove all traces of our activities from the camp in Massok.” Jason says: “That’s not enough. The camp in Massok must be completely destroyed.”
This drives Larson mad. He says: “You want to destroy the work of my life? The destruction of the weak and the creation of a master race – that was the dream of my life!” He tells Jason that he knows that Jason is impotent which in turn makes Jason so angry that he shoots Larson.
You follow me? Larson had hired Lou and Ricky to destroy bad guy Jason’s operation. Now, it turns out, he was the boss of it. Why would he hire somebody to destroy it all? Well, that question also puzzled the director of the movie when I asked him about it but more of that later.
Anyway… Jason returns to his temple camp, just in time to escape a new attack by Lou and Ricky who finish off a lot of extras and free all the kidnapped girls. Happy reunion of Maddy and the two good guys.
Siani shows up and has to “confess something” to our good guys – the location of the Massok camp.
Well, it’s almost a wrap from here. Lou, Ricky and Maddy compete with Jason in the destruction of the Massok camp – they all seem to love explosions. Jason destroys it to eliminate evidence, the good guys destroy it because… Well, who knows? Anyway, the good guys kill off all baddies including Jason.
Business finished. All quiet, a bird in the air. Ricky says: “The final solution!” and Lou responds: “And no loose ends.” before taking off in a boat with Maddy while Ricky drives his jeep into the sunset. Final credits roll.
Final solution… and no loose ends? We have a strong case against that! As it is, the movie is extremely confusing and makes no sense at all. Why does it all happen? Why does Larson hire the “good guys” to destroy his own empire? And what the hell is “Ten Zan”? To the latter refers nothing but a short dialogue between Lou and Ricky after they have finished all preparations for the attack on the “base camp”:
Lou: “It’s time. I see you at Ten Zan. That’s what the marines said when on Iwo-jima.”
Ricky: “The mountain of paradise, instead it turned out to be hell.”
Lou: “It was a way of saying ‘Good Luck’.”
Ricky: “I will see you at Ten Zan then.”
Two young guys referring to the marines of the Pacific War as if they had been in the middle of action themselves back then? Not very convincing.
Anyway, if the plot is botched, the script confusing, the name a mystery, does the film have any redeeming qualities that make it worth watching? The actors? They were all at their worst. The explosions? You have seen better ones in Hollywood and Hong Kong movies. The brief scene of a semi-naked Sabrina Siani? Only worth watching if you keep in mind that this is an extremely rare scene of semi-bare tits in North Korean film history…
Well, the only fun that can be derived from that movie is spotting the North Korean locations where all that nonsense takes place. If the movie had been shot in, say, the Philippines, would there be a reason to see or review it at all? Not in a lifetime!
But since the movie is such an oddity, let’s delve a little further into its background.
Ferdinando Baldi, the director
Baldi was an old work-horse of the Italian exploitation scene. Born in 1927, he had made a lot of peblum films in the early 1960s, employing Orson Welles as King Saul in his successful David and Goliath (1960), and when that genre lost its popularity, he moved, alongside a lot of other Italian directors, into making Spaghetti Westerns.
His masterpiece in that genre was Texas, Addio (aka The Avenger, 1966), starring Franco Nero. Other noteworthy contributions to that genre were Viva Django (aka Django Prepare a Coffin, 1968), starring Terence Hill, Horst Frank and George Eastman, and the rather weird Blindman (1971), in which Baldi directed former Beatle Ringo Starr. But soon, Spaghetti Westerns went out of fashion, too, and giallo movies (slasher/psychopath pictures) became all the rage. Baldi left his mark on that genre, as well: with both the 1976 Nove ospiti per un delitto and the 1979 La ragazza del vagone letto (aka Terror Express, aka Torture Train), the latter starring Werner Pochath as leader of a gang that takes over a section of a night train and rapes and tortures the passengers. With the Western Comin‘ at ya! (1981) and the adventure movie Il tesoro delle quatro corone (aka Treasure of the Four Crowns, 1983), Baldi even ventured into 3-D filmmaking. But by this time, Italian exploitation cinema was already in free fall. Some directors went on to try their luck in extreme gore, like Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust, 1979), and Lucio Fulci (New York Ripper, 1982) while others resorted to cheap action pics. Baldi did the latter. Amongst a slew of super low-budget movies, he shot a cheap Vietnam war action pic named War Bus in 1985 in the Philippines, financed with American money. Not exactly a success with the critics but the film did well on the American action video market – and it made some money there.
By the spring of 1988, he had already finished shooting his follow-up picture Un maledetto soldato (aka Just a Damned Soldier) but his picture on display at the Cannes Film Festival that year was still the tried and tested War Bus.
The North Korean delegation attended the show.
The situation in North Korea
The mid-1980s had been a very productive era in North Korean cinema and not only Worker’s Party propaganda was produced at that time but also highly entertaining flicks which more often than not involved foreign talent and technicians to ensure top-notch performances. For swordfight flick Hong Kil Dong (1985), martial arts experts from Hong Kong were flown in. And director Shin Sang-ok not only employed a good part of the crew that had created Japan’s recent Godzilla movies for his North Korean kaiju (monster) picture Pulgasari (1985) but even put actor Kenpachiro Satsuma into the rubber suit of the movie’s monster – the same actor who had devastated a lot of cardboard models of Tokyo wearing the Godzilla outfit.
In 1986, all that suddenly changed: Shin Sang-ok fled to America, Gorbatchev came to power in the Soviet Union and began to open up that “Evil Empire,” as Ronald Reagan called it, and China went serious with its changes towards a market-oriented capitalist economy.
The North Korean leadership saw their only way to counter all these threatening developments by retreating into a new “hermit kingdom”-shell. But within this shell, a lot of things had gone rotten. The previous period of openness, combined with severe economic problems, had alienated quite a part of the own population from the preachings of Great Leader Kim Il-sung. All cinematic propaganda efforts went now into addressing these new problems.
But whereas entertaining martial arts films like Hong Kil Dong and Order No. 027, produced in the previous years, could be sold all over the markets of the Eastern Bloc, those new domestic hero epics like A Bellfower (1987) remained on the shelves of the shabby North Korean booths at international film markets like Cannes, MIFED (Milan) and Berlin. Nobody wanted them – not even the closest allies. Those allies were all too busy to get rid of exactly that Communist backwardness in their own countries that the new North Korean films propagated as “heroism of the day.”
Cash-strapped as the North Korean film industry was, there had to be a way out of this situation. So, why not pursue a really revolutionary and innovative way – make a “Western action movie” using North Korean locations which could be sold more or less clandestinely on Western markets for a good profit, disguised as a Western movie and thus circumventing the American embargo against North Korean products of all kinds. A movie like that would certainly find its audience on the newly emerging video market in the U.S. and other countries.
The Korea International Film Production Agency went out scouting for a project that might deliver just that. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1988 they met… Ferdinando Baldi.
Italy! A country with a grand old movie tradition totally down on its heels. A country where a lot of film people pretended to be American and put English-sounding pseudonyms into the credits! Baldi, a veteran director of that cinema desperately scouring the Cannes Film Market to sell off his latest war movie script. The North Koreans had found their man! And Baldi embarked on the last big screen production of his career.
Meeting Mr. Baldi
I had seen Ten Zan for the first time at the screening facilities of the Korea Film Export & Import Corporation in Pyongyang in 1999 when I was preparing a North Korean film series to be shown at various European film festivals. I found it strange enough to include it into my movie series. Along with the rest of my series, the film premiered at the Gothenburg Film Festival in January 2000. But the festival where it found the biggest appreciation was the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy. For obvious reasons – the Italians were thrilled to see what one of their fellow countrymen had done in that sealed country. The festival catalogue hyped the movie as “a true example of globetrotting Italian filmmaker’s daredevil vitality.” The festival organizers invited Baldi and he agreed to come and introduce his film but fell ill a few days before and the movie ran without his presence.
I had always wanted to hear the stories behind that film. Finally, on a rainy Friday evening in late February 2002, my Japanese friend Tomoko Katayama and I took the night express from Munich to Rome. The old Italian train looked every bit like the one in Terror Express. But no Werner Pochath gang was attacking this time and the conductor did not run a brothel in the sleeper car section as the conductor in Terror Express had done. Tomoko prevented me from walking up to the cool young conductor, a nice guy sporting a shaved head, having everything under his control and probably reading existentialist books on his long nightly shifts, and telling him that he should show that movie as an extra service every night on that train.
Rome, Sunday morning. Bar Vanni, near Piazza Mazzini and the RAI state television studios. Baldi had told me on the phone that it would be very easy to recognize him because he is “an old man.” Well, as Tomoko and I sat there in the glaring morning sun on the outdoor chairs of Vanni and looked at the customers filing into the cafe, it seemed that only old men were around.
One was standing close to us, staring down the street as if he expected somebody. I somehow doubted he would be my interview partner but asked him anyway: “Excuse me, are you Mr. Baldi?” “Ohh yes, I am!” he replied with a deep raspy voice in heavily Italian-accented English. We hurried inside – “the old man” seemed very energetic –, ordered our first cappuccini and I told Baldi: “You know, we just took the night express from Germany here. I watched your film Terror Express right before I went to the train station…” “You did? That’s crazy!” he replied, “I never heard of anybody doing that! Weren’t you afraid riding that train then?” “Oh no, I told Tomoko all the details about the movie while we were on that train.” “You are crazy, young man.” he said and shook his head.
The capuccini came. I gave Mr. Baldi the latest issue of the English-language South Korean fanzine Bug for which I had written a lengthy account of my visits to North Korea and a catalogue of the 2000 Gothenburg Film Festival. I asked him: “Do you have a video of Ten Zan”? He sadly shook his head. “I have nothing of that film anymore.” “Well, I made you a copy.” I said, “Please take it.” I gave him the tape and he seemed very happy. “I will watch it as soon as I can and let you know what I think about the film now,14 years after making it.”
I got my tape recorder in position and started with the questions.
Ferdinando Baldi Do you know anybody here at the North Korean embassy in Rome?
Film International No, but I used to know some folks at their embassy in Berlin. But they are all back in North Korea now.
F.B. Yes, they change. Many times.
F.I. Alright, let’s start… Lorenzo Codelli of the Udine Far East Film Festival made an interview with you and you told him that you made that film War Bus and that War Bus got you involved with the North Koreans. Can you say something about how you got in contact with them?
F.B. We showed War Bus in Cannes, in France. The North Koreans were there. Looking. They liked the picture. They said: ‘Why don’t we shoot something in Korea?’ Let me confess, I thought the idea of going to the North of Korea very strange but I said: ‘Okay, let me think.’ We talked to some people at their embassy here in Rome and to the manager of their film company. Anyway, with my producer, they negotiated the terms of business. I said: ‘I absolutely want to see what will happen.’ So, I arrived in North Korea with a script that had no real relation to reality.
F.I. The script was about the Pacific War?
F.B. Yes. About the battle of Ten Zan. Ten Zan is a classic. It’s a mountain on an island in the Pacific where the Americans had a big battle with the Japanese. When I arrived in North Korea, the script was only a starting point… like, where to go with the project and to see if the North Koreans were really interested in the picture. They started to discuss it in Korea again. They don’t speak English there, some spoke French. They gave me a young boy and I said: ‘Okay, you are my assistant.’ They said: ‘We have to go over the script again, they made calls… For about one month I tried to save the basics of my script. At the same time, they totally rewrote it. Finally, we agreed on something. But I said ‘Before we do the final script, is it possible to see the locations?’ ‘The locations? Right.’ They scratched their heads. ‘How can we do that? Well, we can go there only once.’
F.I. You were in Pyongyang all that time?
F.B. In Pyongyang, yes. In one hotel in Pyongyang. You know Pyongyang?
F.I. Yes. I stayed there at the Pyongyang Hotel and at the Koryo Hotel, the big twin-tower hotel.
F.B. The Koryo Hotel, that’s it. I was staying there… And, finally, we went to see the locations. It was very difficult. It would take a lot of time getting trucks and all that. There were many delays. I think that was good for us. To have some time to create a relation with them. Especially to my assistant – I thought, the gent is very good, so young. They invited us to some places and we could see the situation there. Finally, we started to shoot. For eight weeks, we worked on the picture. Very difficult. Because sometimes, in the morning, some authorities showed up and said: ’At this place, shooting is impossible.’ So, we were obliged to change. I asked for trucks, for four or five of them. They sent only two. But finally, we finished shooting. I can tell you, it was an experience, unbelievable. You never forget the contact with the people there. North Korea was the only place where I was shocked and at the same time, I got a very good feeling with the North Koreans I worked with. I invited them to a projection of the film here in Rome. Six of them, the assistant, the directing manager… They came, they were my guests. They were happy. And they went back to North Korea. But you cannot phone them there, you can’t write to them, the contact was cut then. The business stopped.
F.I. Going back to the script. It started out as a story about the Pacific War but in the end, the movie is set in current times…
F.B. The North Koreans changed it to what it became.
F.I. There are some parts I could never understand in the script. Like Professor Larson hires the two mercenaries, the Frank Zagarino-character and his sidekick, to destroy his own operation. In the end, everything is destroyed. But why does he hire them to destroy his own operation?
F.B. Listen, there was a problem there. I can’t remember exactly. It was a problem of production. We did something wrong. We did not see the rushes. We couldn’t see the rushes. Nobody could say: ‘What are we doing here?’ I don’t know what happened – but something happened.
F.I. Because Professor Larson is talking in that car to that Asian collaborator of his in the beginning of the film and they agree that it is necessary to ‘take the step’ to eliminate some of their operation by hiring the Zagarino-character. But later, in the scene at Pohyong Temple, it turns out that the Sabrina-Siani-character is Larson’s daughter. She has always been with the guys operating the camps to be destroyed by Zagarino. How can that be? Larson hiring mercenaries to destroy operations his own daughter runs?
F.B. That must have been a mistake. For sure. I didn’t see that. They must have changed it in progress. Now, when I see it again [knocking on the video tape I gave him which was sitting on the table], maybe, maybe I remember the reason for this. In that case, I will tell you on the phone, if I remember the real reason. Well, something happened back then but after seeing the film again, I will tell you the truth about what happened. Okay?
F.I. In the credits in the beginning, it says ‘Amerinda Est. Productions’. Who was that? An Italian company? Was the film a co-production?
F.B. It was an Italian company. The film was a co-production between that company and North Korea. Amerinda was a part of some big company… They funded the co-production.
F.I. But the film was never released in Italy?
F.B. No. Because they started to fight about money. Amerinda and the North Koreans. Like, it’s my business-your business, who can do what in Germany, in France, in Italy… I made other movies later on and totally forgot what it was all about.
F.I. What was your first impression when you went to Pyongyang?
F.B. It was fantastic. Very, very clean.
F.I. And no traffic.
F.B. Sure. No smoke. You know, very wide…. Only one thing disturbed me there. Everyday, we went outside of Pyongyang to shoot and every day, there was this long row of people walking in the streets, thousands of people. Walking in the streets.
F.I. I have seen the same.
F.B. Yes. Well, why? I couldn’t understand. So, I asked my assistant. He knew the reason and he showed it to me: they were all soldiers on work assignments. They would work on the construction of some road, walking out there every day into the middle of nowhere to do all the construction work by hand! … But the people there are so pure! Very kind! There was no confusion… and no cars. No cars at all! Everyone walking!
F.I. You always had a guide with you?
F.I. I also always had a guide around me when I went there. Every visitor has. But when I went there, the foreigners always played that game of trying to find a way to run away…
F.B. Yes, of course, but we couldn’t do that because they were watching us very, very closely. After a while, they would say, okay, okay, let’s go out together. But all in all, they controlled us very strictly.
And of course, where would you go? First of all, there are no stores. We asked to buy something. You know, we ate at the hotel for days and days, always Korean food. So we asked to go out and buy some food in the supermarket. No supermarket. We asked, can we just go out? They said: ‘No, no’. But, one day we found a big department store at the square near the train station. But there was only one line, a big line of girls. I looked again – it was only women waiting in that line. Why? We wanted to find out. The people saw that we were foreigners and said: ‘Go, go, go, you can’t buy anything here!’ Suddenly we were in front of the line and we could see what they sold – they sold only two things: one was red lipstick, the other one white lipstick! Two things for sale – that was all.
F.I. Makes sense that it was only girls in the queue…
F.B. Yes, because, the government decided, it’s the year of the lips. We thought ‘that’s funny’! But believe me, it was strange to see a thousand people there just to buy something for the lips. Amazing… but interesting.
F.I. Actually, I was in that department store next to the train station. But there was no customer at that time and the sales ladies just said: ‘Go to the hotel, go to the hotel! Not here!’ But they were selling nothing anyway.
F.B. You can buy things only in the hotel. Same for us. But we started to ask many things about Pyongyang. Like, we asked the young girls waiting the tables about their life… But they wouldn’t answer our questions. And if we asked, ‘Are you married?’ they would go, ‘What, me, married?!’ Why? I later found out, that you can marry only when you are 27 years old. I asked my assistant: ‘Are you married? He said: ‘No’. ‘What are you doing then until you are 27? Do you have a fiancee or something?’ He goes: ‘Yes’. ‘And do you live with her?’ ‘No’ ‘When can you see her?’ ‘Not until she is 27.’ ‘And she can wait all that time? And you really don’t meet her some days, some nights?’ Maybe he met her every once in a while but he said: ’No’. That was very difficult to understand…
F.I. A question about the actors. I understand you could choose the Western actors but there are also a lot of Asians in the film. Are they North Koreans? Could you choose them?
F.B. Yes, they are North Koreans. There is only one production agency in North Korea. They decided about the Korean actors. They said: ‘This one, this one, this one…’
F.I. What about Frank Zagarino? He is American…
F.B. You know, Zagarino, he got in trouble. Because he likes to take photos. You know the Americans: ‘Picture! Picture! Picture!’ is all they think. One day, they stopped him and led him away. I discussed with the North Koreans and asked: ‘Why? This is impossible!’ They said: ‘He’s American! He’s a spy!’ Finally, the Italian embassy in Beijing got involved and got him released after two days in jail.
F.I. What did Zagarino say about the jail?
F.B. Naturally, he was very angry with the North Koreans.
F.I. Did he tell you any details about the jail?
F.B. Not really. He would just go on and on ranting…
Time to change the tape and to order another capuccino. Rather jokingly, I asked Baldi: “Did you ever meet Kim Jong-il? You know, he’s a big movie fan.” He made a serious face and I was quick to turn the tape recorder back on.
F.B. One day, the director of the movie business came, the chief, and he said: ‘On Sunday, you are invited by our president. To meet him.’
F.I. So that was Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il?
F.B. No, no, the old one.
F.I. Kim Il-sung.
F.B. So, on that day, they came with a truck and they showed us where he was born, where he lived when he was young, the school he went to, and a tree, a big tree, where he started to create the political philosophy, you know the …
F.I. Juche philosophy
F.B. Huhh? Yes… And the little house, farm house, where his parents lived. After all that touring, they sent us to a big museum. In the mountains. Very big.
F.I. At Mount Myohyang? Near Pohyong Temple? The Friendship Museum?
F.B. Yes. They showed us the gifts he got from other presidents. After a couple of hours, they took us to the presidential palace. There, an authority came to us, I don’t know, some vice-minister or something, and he said, he had to read a message from Kim Il-sung to us, saying ‘Our president welcomes you, he thanks you for coming but he apologizes because he cannot meet us.’ Because he had the Chinese ambassador there or something. He said: ‘Kim Il-sung likes to send you a picture of himself for everyone one’. [Baldi gesticulated to describe the size of the picture – it seemed to be the same size as the standard Kim Il-sung portraits seen on all office walls in North Korea.] That was it – the only relation I had to Kim Il-sung. But I saw him another time at a big parade on the main square in Pyongyang. Thousands and thousands of people were there and we saw him just from very far away.
F.I. And the young one? Kim Jong-il? Because Kim Jong-il loves movies and he loves to come to the movie sets. Did he show up at your set?
F.B. Yes. Just to get to know the actors. He was very kind. He showed up a few times.
F.I. He just showed up?
F.B. Yes, yes.
F.I. Without announcement?
F.B. No,no, nothing else. That’s all… But he was a young guy then. I’m talking about the 1980s.
F.I. Did you talk to him?
F.B. No, no.
F.I. He just spoke to the actors?
F.B. He spoke to the actors. He says: ‘Hello, hello…’
F.I. So, he did not say, ‘Shoot the movie this way or that way?
F.B. No, no.
F.I. Because he likes to do that with North Korean films.
F.B. No, no, he didn’t. But the assistant director, he said all the time when Kim Jong-il was there: ‘Yes… no problem…right…’
F.I. Your assistant director was Pak Jong-ju?
F.B. Don’t ask me about Korean names. Back then I was able to say his name correctly… Yes… Pak something? Pok? Pok? … Pak! That’s right!
F.I. Pak Jong-ju. I got his name from the North Koreans. He was your assistant and made sure you did the movie the way the North Koreans wanted it?
F.B. No. First of all, the North Koreans wanted to learn something. At the same time, he was a happy assistant. A very good boy. He had some problem with his family. Living with ten or fifteen persons in one room… Very, very difficult situation. But I couldn’t help him.
F.I. How was the language situation on the set?
F.B. I was talking English, usually. And many times, we used translators to speak to the Korean actors. Also, my second assistant spoke French. With Pak, I tried to speak English, but, you know, they don’t know much English… So, it was difficult.
F.I. You used a lot of interesting locations in the movie. Like the Koryo Hotel. I could see the reception desk with that world map behind it in the movie…
F.B. Yes, we did that because it was impossible to shoot at another place. We shot at the hotel where we were staying.
F.I. You also shot in the subway…
F.B. The subway was the best. It was like, a gift from the Russian government. Very big. We don’t have that in Europe.
F.I. And I recognized the temple, Pohyong Temple. Where Professor Larson shoots Jason. Actually, I saw the movie first and then went to the temple. With a tour group that included some friends who had also seen the movie. The North Koreans wanted to explain to us ‘This is this Buddha and that is that Buddha’ but I explained to everyone around, ‘ Look, Professor Larson was standing there and Jason was standing there…
F.B. Laughing very loudly. That’s funny…
F.I. Where was that beach the movie starts with?
F.B. In the South. Very close to the border to South Korea.
F.I. Near Kaesong?
F.I. It’s a very beautiful landscape… Did you see any North Korean films while you were in Pyongyang?
F.I. North Korean films? Did they show you any of their own productions while you were there?
F.I. Because their films are totally different from your film. They always have a big hero who has the right revolutionary spirit…
F.B. [Baldi looked a bit perplexed like he didn’t know what I was talking about and offered a vague]: That may be another story, perhaps…
F.I. What was your final impression? Were you kinda glad to get out of there? In the end?
F.B. Hah! It was crazy. In the long run, it was very frustrating… it had been a difficult time there…
F.I. Because, those two times I went there, when I walked out of the airport in Beijing after coming from Pyongyang, and I could suddenly walk around freely, with no guide around, it was like ‘I’m back in the free world!’
F.B. Yes, that’s what it feels like! I shot many movies in many parts of the world but North Korea was a unique experience.
F.I. Then, all the post-production was done here in Rome?
F.I. Then, you did the screening for the North Koreans here, sent them the picture and that was the end of it?
F.I. If you compare Ten Zan to your other films, what’s your impression of it?
F.B. It was very difficult. I couldn’t do the film the way I wanted…
F.I. Would you go there again to make another movie?
F.B. I used to say ‘Yes’. But now, I think, it’s impossible. I’m too old now to work under these conditions. Back then, I was much younger, I was able to sort of pull it off…and as I found out later, thousands of people were starving to death in North Korea back then already.
F.I. It went worse. In 1988, the North Koreans still had the support of the Soviet Union and China. That changed soon after.
F.B. That’s right.
F.I. Do you still follow the news from there? Many friends of mine who went there, and they, like myself, can never stop following the news from there, reading the official North Korean news for breakfast but also the South Korean news denouncing the situation in the North… We know lots of people are dying in North Korea… but for every visitor having been there, a certain – very troubled – fascination with the place remains somewhere in the mind…
F.B. Right, because it’s such a strange, unusual place.
I turned the tape off. Baldi had an appointment in one of the nearby RAI television centers and was in a hurry to get there. One final photo of the two of us, another pledge by him that he would get back to me after watching the tape, and he left.
I called him a week later. He had seen the tape I had given him and was very confused. He said: “I was shocked when I saw it! The North Koreans must have re-cut the film after we gave it to them. I will find out. I ordered a tape of our original cut from the Italian producer. I can tell you more once I have seen that.” “Another question. I did a little research on battles in the Pacific War. I couldn’t find anything on a battle near some Ten Zan mountain. Where did you read about it?” “Ten Zan is a classic… I read about it in a book, a Japanese book, I believe… I will look it up.”
A few weeks later, I called again. “Could you find out about Ten Zan?” “Well, I ordered a book. From Japan. After I get that, I can tell you for sure.” “And did you watch that tape from your producer?” “Uhh, not yet. I have been very ill. The flu. You understand? Just wait, say, five more days and I can tell you everything you want to know.” “Wish you good health, Mr. Baldi!”
After waiting another few weeks, I called another time. “I’m very busy right now, young man.” Baldi told me, “I’ve a big retrospective of my work coming up in Japan and I’m in the middle of arranging things. What’s up?” “Well, I just wanted to ask you if you found out about the origin of the ‘Ten Zan’ title…” “Yes, it’s a little mountain on Guadalcanal. A little mountain.” “Did you have a chance to check out the original version of your film?” “Yes, I watched it. The North Koreans changed a lot. They did some manipulation on the film.” “Like, what did they do?” “I can’t tell you now. I’ve no time. But listen, I will send you the tape. The original tape. Then, you can compare yourself. Okay? Just give me some days. Like, five days? One week?” “Yes, sure, great. You got my address. Thanks a lot.”
I’m still waiting for that tape to arrive to finally finish my research…
This article/interview was originally published in Film International 18, vol. 3, no. 6, 2005. Ferdinando Baldi died in Rome on November 12, 2007.
Johannes Schönherr is a freelance writer and independent film curator.
Read Schönherr’s “Permanent State of War: A Short History of North Korean Cinema”. Watch Ten Zan.