J.S.: Your assistant director was Pak Jong-ju?
F.B.: Don’t ask me about Korean names. Back than I was able to say his name correctly... Pak something? Pok? Pok? ... Pak! That’s right!
J.S.: 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 10 or 15 people in one room... very, very difficult situation. But I couldn’t help him.
J.S.: 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.
J.S.: 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 any other place. We shot at the hotel where we were staying.
J.S.: 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.
J.S.: And I recognized the temple, Pohyong Temple. Where Jason shoots Professor Larson. 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...
J.S.: Where was that beach the movie starts with?
F.B.: In the South. Very close to the border with South Korea.
J.S.: Near Kaesong?
J.S.: It’s a very beautiful landscape... What was your final impression of North Korea? Were you kind of glad to get out of there? In the end?
F.B.: Hah! It was crazy. In the long shot, it was very frustrating... it had been a difficult time there...
J.S.: 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.
J.S.: Then, all the post-production was done here in Rome?
J.S.: Then, you did the screening for the North Koreans here, sent them the picture and that was the end of it?
J.S.: 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...
J.S.: 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.
J.S.: It got 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.
J.S.: Do you still follow up the news from there? Many friends of mine who have been there, including me, can never stop getting 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 that place remains somewhere in the mind...
F.B.: Right, because it’s such a strange, unusual place.
I turned the tape off. Baldi had told me that he 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.”
I called him several more times over the following weeks. He always found a reason why he hadn’t been able to watch the original cut…
Well, the film had actually been released in theaters in a few countries during the 1980’s, Finland being one of them. In other markets, it was simply tossed out to the public on video. I managed to get hold of the Japanese video version, released under the title “Nasake-muyou no senshi”, which roughly translates to “Merciless Fighters”. Aside from the different title and the Japanese subtitles, it’s EXACTLY the same as the version of Ten Zan I saw in Pyongyang and later showed in Europe on a North Korean 35mm print. The same as the version on the tape I gave to Baldi. Toshiba, the Japanese release company, certainly bought the film from the Italians, not from the North Koreans.
There is only one explanation to why the film features such a self-contradictory story: Baldi shot nonsense in the first place… in a strange land and under intense pressure from a strict government he couldn’t really figure out. No way to turn his material shot in North Korea into anything even remotely sane by using even the most advanced methods of Italian post-production.
But then, hey, sanity and reason have always been the last thing on the minds of Italian exploitation directors! Hell, Baldi went out there, to one of the most inhospitable countries on Earth, shooting whatever he could! He was “a true example of globetrotting Italian filmmaker’s daredevil vitality” after all. Even though Italian cinema was already dying all around him…
Ferdinando Baldi passed away in November 2007. Ten Zan was his last film. Rest in peace, Ferdinando!