A mad dictator obsessed with film kidnaps the best director and actress of a rival country, so that his nation can make its movies world-class. In two years, the captive pair churn out seventeen movies, before escaping to freedom. Oh, and they’re married. That’s not the ludicrous pitch to the next Coen Brothers flick. It’s actually a true story. In a limited theatrical run and just released to iTunes today, The Lovers and the Despot lays out the ludicrous details in a fascinating, strange documentary.
Shin Sang-ok was dubbed the “Prince of Korean cinema” for his prolific high profile work in the late fifties and sixties. The star of many of his films was Choi Eun-hee, an acclaimed actress. The two were married and became a power couple in the South Korean film industry, until Shin’s career stumbled in the seventies. When Choi discovered Shin was involved with a younger actress, fathering two children, the marriage foundered as well. Out of sorts, Choi took an opportunity to make a film in Hong Kong. The opportunity was a ruse, a lure to kidnap Choi and bring her to North Korea. As Shin became implicated in Choi’s disappearance, he went to Hong Kong to try and locate her. There an associate of his turned out to be a North Korean agent, and he was kidnapped as well.
Kim Jong-il wasn’t the leader of North Korea at that time. That was his dad, Kim Il-Sung. But the elder Kim was getting old, and Kim Jong-il was exercising more and more power, waiting in the wings. In an amazing early sequence, we hear Kim Jong-il’s voice, recorded illicitly on a micro-cassette, complaining about North Korea’s lousy films, wondering why everyone in them is always crying. “This isn’t a funeral,” he says. He kidnaps Choi as bait to bring in Shin, but Shin is uncooperative. Kim Jong-il keeps Choi in a gilded existence, taking her to shows and operas, letting her garden on a small estate. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, his minions attempt to slowly reprogram Shin in prison over five years. Finally, Shin capitulates, and the estranged couple is reunited in the strangest of circumstances.
Ross Adam and Andy Cannan co-direct The Lovers and the Despot. They pull together an intriguing mix of interviews, audio recordings, real film footage and reenactments to create a suspenseful yarn. What they don’t do is signal which stuff is real and which is reconstructed, which gives the film an unsettled air. They liberally splice in scenes from Shin’s films to illustrate key plot points. Shin had no business sense, we’re told, and creditors would camp outside his house. So we see a scene from one of his films where a gang of bandits corner the hero in a courtyard. It’s illustrative but heavy-handed. The films themselves are never credited, so we don’t know what movies we’re seeing. It’s effective for the mood and storytelling, but messy for a documentary.
While Shin and Choi manage to escape, fleeing to a U.S. embassy and then to the States, they’re plagued by the question of whether they were kidnapped or in fact freely defected. Bolstered by the audiotapes the couple secretly made of their captor, the kidnappings seem genuine. More interesting is the Stockholm syndrome moral hurdles of making high budget propaganda in a gilded cage, while Choi and Shin bided their time waiting for an opportunity to escape.
“There’s acting for films,” Choi says, “then there’s acting for life.” The film only glancingly touches on the real fear of working with Kim Jong-il, noting his penchant for murdering people who displeased him. When his father died, the despot disappeared entire families who failed to show convincing grief at the massive state funeral. The footage of thousands of Koreans crying and gesticulating wildly for the government cameras is an unnerving, fear-stricken pantomime.
The Lovers and the Despot is an unusual documentary, wrapped in the trappings of a dramatic thriller for its unlikely twists and turns. Choi and Shin were lucky to escape Kim’s terrifying national cult. While millions remain under North Korea’s repressive regime, they made it out, starting over in Los Angeles. Crazy story, for them, for us, we all get a Hollywood ending.