By Barry Rubinow
It’s become a cliché to say that wild and crazy news stories, although true, would be rejected by the movie studios as too preposterous, if they were pitched as a script. In the remarkable new documentary THE LOVERS & THE DESPOT filmmakers Robert Cannan and Ross Adam tell a true story so outlandish the subjects themselves worried that no one would believe them.
Film director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee, the ‘Lovers’ of the title, met and fell in love in 1950s South Korea. They made a very successful series of films together and were at the top of South Korean society. They were rich, famous and happy…until everything fell apart, suddenly and in the most bizarre way imaginable.
Choi is kidnapped and taken to North Korea in 1978, where she becomes one of Kim Jong Il’s ‘companions.’ Held against her will but not imprisoned, Choi takes to gardening to pass the time. Her husband Shin frantically searches for her until he is abducted and imprisoned by Kim Jong Il a few months later. After years of solitary confinement and torture, Shin agrees to make films for Kim Jong Il.
It turns out that Kim is extremely frustrated by the quality of films being produced in his country. In one of the most surreal moments of the film, Kim is heard on tape saying, “We don’t get into any film festivals,” revealing a curious side of his Western envy. (It’s a bit tough to see Kim Jong Il schmoozing at Sundance parties, but sounds like it was a dream of his!) He wanted the great Shin to bring some pizzazz to North Korean filmmaking.
Shin and Choi are happily reunited after years of separation and begin making films for the North Korean dictator. They go on an incredible tear, making 17 films in just over 2 years, and their films are better than anything ever seen from the secretive, isolated society.
Because Shin and Choi were concerned that no one would believe their story, they begin secretly taping all of their conversations with Kim Jong-Il. The ex-CIA representative interviewed in the film says that they had never heard Kim Jong Il’s voice until these tapes were discovered. It is creepy hearing the dictator’s voice, unguardedly laughing and discussing his dreams with Shin. It is a conspiracy of artistry, dominance and intrigue. The tapes also reveal how shrewd Shin was in dealing with Kim, gaining his confidence, which eventually leads to his and Choi’s escape.
Filmmakers Cannan and Adam utilize the tapes effectively in helping weave this complex tale. They were also able to obtain incredible, never-before-seen footage of North Korea to give a rare glimpse into this tightly hidden world.
“Everyone has seen the marching footage and the military parades over and over again on the news, but we wanted to show ordinary North Koreans going about their daily business,” Cannan said in a recent phone interview.
Other tools in their filmmaking arsenal are the films that Shin and Choi produced for both North and South Korea. Cannan and Adam edit them into the film to terrific effect to help propel the story, while at the same time commenting on it with humor and irony.
Artful re-creations, or ‘recons’ as the filmmakers call them, were utilized to display important moments in the story. From the very first images of the tape machine ominously whirring, it is clear that Cannon and Adam will skillfully and confidently lead the viewer through this journey.
Kim Jong-Il surprisingly comes across as a three-dimensional, ‘almost’ sympathetic character, overshadowed by his iconic, charismatic father, Kim Il-Soong. “How he came into being is very important,” said Cannan. “He’s not just a one-dimensional monster, there are certain depths to him as well.”
In the end, this is a love story, albeit a bizarrely tangled one. Choi is our main storyteller as Shin died in 2006, and she tells a tale of courage and ‘love conquering all’ in the end.
THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and will be released by Magnolia Pictures in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, September 23, with a national rollout to follow. It is well worth seeking out.
Barry Rubinow is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and editor. He was Senior VP, Creative for The Documentary Channel.