Film: Lovers and the Despot, The (2016)

October 4, 2016 | By

LoversAndTheDespot_poster_sFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  n/a

Extras: n/a

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Released:  n/a

Genre:  Documentary / North Korea / Film History

Synopsis: Surreal life imitating art tale of a South Korean director and actress kidnapped by North Korea’s Kim Jong-il to reivigorate his country’s film industry.

Special Features:  n/a




“Aren’t I small like a midget’s turd?” — Kim Jong-il breaking the ice with his new guests from the South.


One of the strangest tales in film history is the abduction of late South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and award-winning film star Choi Eun-hee by North Korea’s Kim Jong-il to improve his country’s film industry. When the formerly married couple’s ordeal finally ended in 1986 at a press conference back in South Korea, many of their countrymen felt their kidnapping tale was a hoax, branding the couple and their two children (also interviewed) as Communist traitors.

Ross Adam and Robert Cannan’s documentary unfolds like a classic, creepy Cold War espionage tale, and although the narrative employs some cleverly recreated footage to connect the early moments that preceded the couple’s separate abductions – Choi being lured to Hong Kong by a bogus film company (“The Golden Tripod Corporation”) in 1978, and Shin disappearing after attempting his own search for his missing ex-wife that same year – what follows are an amazing array of archival stills and film footage, but the real kicker are actual audio recordings of Kim Jong-il, whom the couple secretly taped to prove their ordeal had be orchestrated by the short, dumpy dictator-to-be.

That any of the tapes still exist is extraordinary, but Shin and Choi’s bizarre journey kind of mandated movie-style thinking to grapple with the suspense plot into which they’d been thrust by the dictator. Kim’s quest to improve the North’s movie industry began when he barked “Why are there so many crying scenes [in our films]?” and set into motion a plot to snatch the South’s most popular actress and director, two icons whose own careers had been languishing for a decade. In the audio recordings, Kim blames the couple’s separate ordeals of isolation (Choi) and a imprisonment and torture (Shin) on his overzealous staff (“a misunderstanding”) that failed to alert him of their mistreatment, and so began a surreal agreement with the Devil: as long as neither star nor director betrayed Kim, the film industry was theirs to build.

Within 2 years the couple, acting primarily as director and assistant director, made 17 films, giving the impression that they had willingly defected to the North to enjoy the creative and financial freedom denied to them in the South. Adam and Cannan’s focus is on the events and relationships between Choi, Shin, and Kim rather than their precise impact on the North’s industry, and although it’s stated they introduced a higher sophistication of content – bigger spectacle, and more unusual for the North, love stories – the use of film clips in the doc is limited. Behind-the-scenes publicity stills during various productions are used, but sections on specific films are rare, with the lone exception being Salt, for which Choi won an award and received the biggest mass-applause of her career in Soviet Russia.

The conflicts shared by the power couple were real – they were enjoying career resurgences – but Shin knew once they’d built an industry to Kim’s specifications, their usefulness would diminish, and their lives would be in danger. Choi wanted to flee whenever they visited east block countries like the former Czechoslovakia, but Shin convinced her to be patient and wait for the right moment, given he’d been working on Kim to gradually escalate their activities from local to east-block co-productions, and finally more commercial films that could play internationally after making a splash at important film festivals. As heard in an audiotape, Shin tells Kim “I’m not going anywhere until I finish my masterpiece.”

A key film in Shin’s filmography is Pulgasari / Bulgasari (1985), a Godzilla variation, but the scaly monster is seen only in a brief montage, which is admittedly a shame, as that movie is Shin’s best-known work from his period in the North, and reflects the most overt attempts by Kim to not only compete with the South, but better it.

Little of the North’s film’s are accessible to the west – even an attempt to make a Titanic riff, Souls Protest (2000), failed to get any distribution beyond the North’s borders – so although the fates of the power couple did comparatively improve after their return to the South, the cinematic works of the North remain elusive. Of the reportedly 12 films produced by Shin and Choi, only Pulgasari exists on DVD as a grey market release.

The Lovers and the Despot is current playing in Toronto at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

Also available: the book A Kim Jong-il Production: The Unbelievable True Story of North Korea and the Most Audacious Kidnapping in History by Paul Fischer via Viking Books.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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