Sundance 2016: ‘The Lovers and the Despot’ proves truth is stranger than fiction

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The Lovers and the Despot
Directed by Robert Cannan & Ross Adam
United Kingdom, 2016

From the “truth is stranger than fiction” files comes the new documentary, The Lovers and the Despot. Directors Robert Cannan and Ross Adam weave adventure, romance, and history into the bizarre scheme of dictator Kim Jong-il to transform North Korea into a cinematic powerhouse. Propulsive and fascinating, The Lovers and the Despot delivers a larger-than-life tale that would make Hollywood screenwriters jealous.

In the early 1980s, South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his leading lady/ex-wife, Choi Eun-hee, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Both were kidnapped by North Korean despot, Kim Jong-il, who had dreams of producing lavish films to rival the beloved masterpieces from the West. Shin and Choi, desperate to escape, slowly gained the trust of Kim during their 8 years in captivity. They also produced 17 films in just over two years for him, giving new meaning to the phrase, “Working under the gun.”

Cannan and Adam tell their story through a mix of dramatic re-enactments, recent interviews with Choi, and covert audio recordings made by Shin while in captivity. It’s a perfect blend of the present and the past, which keeps the story feeling fresh, yet timeless. We hear the anxiety in Shin’s shaky recordings as he tries to fulfill the wishes of the world’s most demanding producer. It’s never clear if Kim would have punished his charges for non-compliance, but he did demand Choi watch The Forty-first; a film in which a female Red Army sniper shoots her lover for trying to betray her. The implication was clear enough to Choi; betraying Kim would mean certain death.

shin and choiThere are plenty of delicious layers to this story, with Kim proving a surprising wildcard. His desire to make quality films is completely sincere. He pledges his affection and support to Shin on several covert recordings, chiding North Korean cinema for its predictability and reliance upon melodrama. Kim provides Shin with unlimited financial resources and travel access to Europe (under the constant surveillance of armed personnel, of course). His methods may have been unsound, but his love for quality cinema was, in a perverse way, quite inspiring.

By far, the most fascinating layer of Lovers is Shin’s obvious emotional conflict. His desire to escape Kim’s clutches is never in doubt, but he also enjoys having financial resources for the first time in his long career. Shin’s son and daughter tell of financial difficulties so dire that creditors were literally camped on their front lawn. To Shin, this is an opportunity to cut loose professionally, even if his hands are bound. Shin even confesses on his audio recordings that he doesn’t want to betray Kim’s trust. Cannan and Adam don’t make any judgements or suppositions about Shin’s loyalties; they merely allow his actions and words to speak for themselves.

The grainy re-enactments of Shin and Choi’s abductions are exceedingly well done. When Choi is stashed below decks of a renegade ship—her evil captors looking on with sinister intent—it feels just like a Hollywood production. Cannan and Adam perfectly match their re-enactments to the look and feel of Shin’s films from the ‘60s. Later, Choi even jokes about feeling like an action star when she and Shin finally escape from a Vienna hotel in 1986. “It felt like I was running in slow motion,” she jokes.

lovers workingAt its heart, however, The Lovers and the Despot is a love story. Shin and Choi met and fell hopelessly in love on a movie set, but their storybook romance would not survive. Always concerned with projecting the image of a stylish and flamboyant director, Shin had many affairs, even fathering children by other lovers. He and Choi divorced, and would have likely remained separated had it not been for their kidnappings. After their escape, Shin and Choi remained together until his death in 2006. Like a villain who unwittingly pushes the estranged lovers back together, Kim Jong-il’s interference saved an otherwise doomed romance.

Historical and political intrigue aside, The Lovers and the Despot is the stuff of pulp fiction. Two lovers, fighting for their lives, re-unite to thwart the nefarious schemes of a powerful madman. Shin and Choi played their roles as willing filmmakers with utter conviction; perhaps too much conviction. To this day, there are those who believe the kidnapping was a ruse devised by Shin to escape his creditors and start anew. The directors aren’t interested in such salacious speculation, however. They’re just trying to tell this riveting story as honestly and entertainingly as possible. Somewhere, a ruthless Hollywood producer is thinking that Kim Jong-il was just misunderstood.

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