Directors: Ross Adam, Robert Cannan
Cast: Shin Sang-ok, Choi Eun-hee
Watch The Lovers and the Despot online in the UK: We Are Colony / BFI Player / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Sky Store
The world is full of strange-but-true documentaries. The Lovers and the Despot is stranger than most.
It tells the story of one unusual kidnapping – the abduction of not just a film director, Shin Sang-ok, but his estranged actress wife, Choi Eun-hee. Both icons of the South Korean screen, she was taken and smuggled across the border to North Korea, with him following shortly after. Why? Because Kim Jong-il was a fan – and wanted them to make movies for him.
That’s right: Kim Jong-il was a cinephile. That revelation is just one of many fascinating details in this tale of media propaganda, politics, culture and romance. Faced with torture, locked in darkness, directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan convey Shin’s captivity with clout – tape recordings of his thoughts chart his gradual realisation that, in order to get out, he’d need to agree to become the ruler’s in-house director. Is it a smart play for freedom? Stockholm Syndrome in action? The sheer appeal of being able to product motion pictures with a practically unlimited budget and, in a way, creative control? (North Korean cinema, we hear, usually focused on work and team players, rather than love stories.)
We know it’s a long-term escape plan, courtesy of a flashback structure that presents the pair via news footage arriving on foreign soil. That, in itself, is audacious enough to make for a compelling watch, as Jim Hession edits the sequences (and footage from their films) together like a heist. An introduction that focuses on the relationship between our couple, meanwhile, complete with Choi’s intimate account of meeting the charming Kim, gives this an engaging, emotional dimension. (“There’s acting for film,” she observes with the wisdom of experience. “Then there’s acting for life.”)
Shin, who has since passed away, also offers some (unavoidably limited) insight into what it was like to suddenly meet a mysterious leader who was deliberately kept at a distance from his subjects to magnify his God-like status. You can’t help but wish the film delved with a little more detail (and some more objective facts) into both life under Kim’s rule (hearing his voice covertly recorded on a tape is a rare thrill) and the exact work the pair produced both in South and North Korea. Given the nature of North Korea, it’s no easy task. That, perhaps, is the subject of another, even stranger, documentary.