North Korea is not exactly high on the list of international movie shooting locations. The country engaged in a few collaborations with Japan and the then-Soviet Union, but with Western European movie producers? In fact it did, though only once, back in 1988. Let’s have a look at the result of this unusual cooperation …
Aerial shots of a rugged coastline, dotted with an abundance of tiny islands. Cut to two amphibious landing craft ploughing through the water. In bold white letters, the opening credits start to roll:
FRANK ZAGARINO AND MARK GREGORY
TEN ZAN – THE ULTIMATE MISSION
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
SABRINA SYAN, ROM KRISTOFF, CHARLES BORROMEL
Cut to the landing craft 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 toss 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. 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 craft. 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 the girl’s chin, looks into her acne-ravaged face. Soldiers from the top of the vehicle grab her, pull her inside and drive away, uprooting some trees on the way.
With a start like this, few Western viewers would expect the movie to be anything other than a cheap American adventure production, playing out a story set in an unidentified, mysterious Asian fantasy land. Especially as all the dialogue is in English. 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 nome 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 were on top of their game, they would know that “Mark Gregory” was Marco Di Gregorio and that “Sabrina Syan” was Sabrina Siani (a.ka. Sabrina Seggiani). Both of them being hardworking Italian B-picture faces, though this movie was Siani’s last. Zagarino on the other hand was a real American and just starting out. He’s quite busy to this day acting in movies that never make into any theater but are quite popular among the video / DVD watching action crowd. But would those trash movie buffs guess right on the location where the film was shot? As improbable as it may sound… it is North Korea!
Alright, 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 nearly absolute freedom to realize even the wildest and goriest scripts, the situation in North Korea was very different. Here, the Italian pulp team met a professional film industry used to running every detail of production according to the strict principles of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, the movie-mad son of the country’s “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung.
But before going into the production background, you want to know a bit more about the story the movie tells, right? I won’t give you too many details as you might want to check the flick out by yourself. With maybe a little location spotting on the side…