Kim Jong-il, the former dictator of North Korea, was a film buff. He had a screening room in each of his houses and was well-versed in the kinds of Western cinema that he would never allow his citizens to view. This is all well-known. The boys behind South Park ran wild with this knowledge with their unflattering portrayal of him in Team America: World Police (2004).
In the 1970s, Kim was lamenting the mediocre state of cinema in North Korea even when compared only to his arch-rival, South Korea. So, the dictator devised a simple solution: I’ll kidnap one of the most popular filmmakers in South Korea and his award-winning actress wife, and we’ll produce films that will make North Korea proud. This is the “fact is stranger than fiction” premise that unfolds in the new documentary The Lovers and the Despot from writer/directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan.
The filmmaker, Shin Sang-ok, was the darling of South Korean cinema in the 1960s, but his skills as a businessman were woefully deficient. He made dozens of successful films with his actress wife, Choi Eun-hee, but his productions were consistently over-budget and revenues were mismanaged. At one point in the film, his son recounts the story of seeing creditors sitting in the snow outside their home, waiting to confront his father about his debts. When Choi is lured to Hong Kong with the promise of some choice film roles, she is abducted and spirited away to North Korea. A couple of months later Shin is kidnapped and reunited with his wife and given one directive by his captor: Make North Korea a global power in the world of cinema.
The centerpiece of The Lovers and the Despot that gives it a greater depth than a simple history lesson are the taped conversations between Shin and Kim Jong-il. The kidnapped filmmaker knew that the story of his plight would never be believed by anyone outside of North Korea. He would simply be labeled a defector or a traitor. Being kidnapped to make movies? Ludicrous. So, Choi placed a recorder on her person and taped her husband’s conversations with the dictator. (Kim was so paranoid and reclusive that American intelligence had never heard his voice until these tapes were released.)
The resulting audio is a fascinating first-person look at the deluded man who ruled a Communist country for decades. He is the kind of person who greets his captives saying, “Thank you for coming.” Kim speaks enthusiastically with Shin and Choi as if he is simply a collaborator on one of their film projects. He blames their kidnapping and subsequent imprisonment on his underlings who “misunderstood his directions”. The pathology behind Kim’s personality is as fascinating as anything else in the film.
The film is told in a combination of talking head interviews, archival footage and re-enactments of key moments that have been lost to history. Yeah, I know, what you’re thinking? Re-enactments? Ugh. They are not what you think. The re-enactments are filmed in a vintage black-and-white and unfold as backdrops to audio clips that describe the actual events. None of the actors in the flashbacks speak on camera. Rather than being cheesy pieces of B-movie-making, they are quite effective at capturing the mood and the environment in which these events occurred.
Despite having ample history to cover during its 98-minute run-time, The Lovers and the Despot does offer some intriguing subtext. Shin is faced with a dilemma that could only be understood by a fellow artist. How would you like to make the best films of your career with budgets unlike anything you’ve ever had access to before … but you will be making these films while you live under house arrest? Shin had fallen into disgrace in his homeland, unable to put together financing for any future projects. And now, he was being offered free reign to make any film he wanted without financial or ideological constraints. It’s like making a wish and having the genie grant it in a most unusual way.
The Lovers and the Despot has to be seen to be believed.
The Lovers and the Despot hits select theaters, On Demand, iTunes and Amazon Video on Friday, September 23, 2016.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.