'The Lovers and the Despot': Sundance Review

'The Lovers and the Despot'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
An alluring and informative documentary about the 1978 kidnapping of two of South Korea's most famous film-industry figures by North Korea's movie-crazy Kim Jong-il.

An alluring and informative documentary providing a wonderfully illustrated glimpse into territory, and a personal story, hitherto less known.

Perhaps the all-time strangest, most outlandish true-life story connected to the cinema and its practitioners is recounted in engrossing, if incomplete, fashion in The Lovers and the Despot. This British documentary resourcefully tells the tale of the 1978 kidnapping of two of South Korea's most famous film-industry figures by North Korea's movie-crazy Kim Jong-il so they could work for him, which they did until their daring escape eight years later. Fascinating on personal, political and cinematic levels, the film resourcefully plumbs all sorts of resources, including secret tape recordings of Kim himself, but also omits certain aspects of the tale that would merely have added to its intrigue. Magnolia acquired U.S. distribution rights at Sundance and wide world sales are assured.

Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee were the royal couple of South Korean cinema, he the local industry's most prolific and esteemed director from the 1950s onward and boss of the country's busiest studio, Shin Films, which produced some 300 films during the 1960s, and she the star of many of them. By 1978, however, the company had collapsed and was closed by the government, while the couple had divorced due to Shin's infidelity and siring two children out of wedlock.

That same year, Choi traveled to Hong Kong to meet with a producer about a possible project and promptly vanished, only to resurface shortly thereafter in North Korea. Soon, Shin ended up there, too, although this was unknown for years, as the film fails to clearly point out. As prisoners in North Korea, the reunited couple eventually made seven films there under Kim's supervision before pulling off a daring escape in Vienna in 1986.

It's cloak-and-dagger stuff, to be sure, but also one of brutal imprisonment — without explanation, Shin was locked up for five years before being released to make films — rekindled romance, revitalized creativity, stealth spying and tragic career miscasting; in an ideal world, ultra-film buff Kim would have been a film producer rather than a nuclear-armed dictator.

Constructing their film like a low-key suspense yarn (and unfortunately accompanied by a repetitive, ominous-styled synth score of the type often heard in the low-budget horror realm), directors Robert Cannan and Ross Adam set things up with a 1986 Washington, D.C., press conference, then flip back 30 years to paint a picture of the couple's prestigious stature, the hackneyed quality of many South Korean films at the time and the tense enmity between the two countries (Shin had been born and raised in an area now part of North Korea).

Now 89, Choi clearly recounts the event surrounding her kidnapping, identifying the female producer who, it became clear, was a North Korean agent, being surrounded by “some tough guys” during the eight-day journey to North Korea on a cargo ship and her being greeted upon her arrival by Kim himself, who said, “Thanks for coming.” She then became a prisoner in a gilded cage, well treated but ignored.

Within two months of Choi being snatched, Shin disappeared. It's generally accepted now that he, too, was kidnapped by North Korea so that he could be reteamed with Choi and bring distinction to the nation's film industry. At the time, however, his friends and colleagues assumed he had been “disappeared” by the South Korean intelligence agency during the authoritarian regime of President Park Chung-hee; hobbled by censorship as well as economic problems, Shin Films had recently been shut down by the government.

This assumption remained in place for five years, during which Shin was assumed to be dead, until his first North Korean film surfaced. What Shin later recounted, on a tape recording heard in the film, is that, after his kidnapping, he was imprisoned, escaped on a train, as in a movie, was caught, put into solitary and subjected to brainwashing, after which a reunion was engineered by Kim and the former couple's professional, as well as personal, relationship was renewed. At great risk, the couple recorded phone conversations with Kim, which were highly valued by the West since he never gave speeches and his voice had never been heard; in one chat, the “Dear Leader” told Shin that his long imprisonment had been the result of “a misunderstanding.”

In any event, Shin began making films with Choi at a rate comparable to that of directors at Warner Bros. in the 1930s — seven over a two-year period, ranging from North Korea's first love story to a ghastly remake of Godzilla. “I want you to be world-famous,” Kim is heard saying.

Instead, Shin and Choi engineered a daring escape from their bodyguards to the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, effectively ending their eight-year ordeal, during which, ironically, Shin had enjoyed, in a certain way, more creative leeway and financial support than he had shortly before and certainly after his North Korean interlude. For a time after the escape, Shin made kiddie ninja pictures in Los Angeles, then returned to South Korea, where he died in 2006.

Great footage of North Korea, and from North Korean movies, is complemented by film clips, archival material and fresh interviews of tremendous variety and interest. The directors have fashioned their documentary like a deliberately paced melodrama, which delivers its own kind of fascination, even if the feeling persists that the enterprise could alternatively have been styled as a crackling thriller.

In any event, The Lovers and the Despot is alluring and informative from several perspectives, providing a wonderfully illustrated glimpse into territory, and a personal story, hitherto less known. For an even more detailed account of the entire episode, Paul Fischer's 2015 book A Kim Jong-il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power is recommended.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Distributor: Magnolia Films
Production: Hellflower, Tigerlily
Directors: Rob Cannan, Ross Adam
Producers: Natasha Dack Ojumu, Rob Cannan, Ross Adam
Executive producers: Lizzie Francke, Richard Holmes, Nick Frazer, Kate Townsend, Sheryl Crown, Maggie Monteith, Victoria Steventon, Cristina Ljungberg, Sandra Whipham
Directors of photography: Yoonseuk Back, Park Byung Kyu, Ric Clark, Will Edwards, Jon Sayers, Robin Probyn, Wilson M. Waggoner, John Halliday, Richard Numeroff, Mary Farbrother, Dan Stafford Clark, Ross Adam
Editor: Jim Hession
Music: Nathan Halpern

Not rated, 93 minutes

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