Film Review: “The Lovers and the Despot”

“The Lovers and the Despot,” a new documentary by Rob Cannan and Ross Adam, tells a bizarre and fascinating true-life tale that perfectly illustrates the saying that “truth is stranger than fiction.” The title also succinctly describes the main characters of this story. The “lovers” are South Korean director Shin Sang-ok, and his wife and frequent actress Choi Eun-hee, for several years in the 1950’s and ’60s the most popular director and star in the country, respectively. The “despot” is the famously movie-obsessed North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. How these three came together forms the crux of the narrative that Cannan and Adam relate in swift, breathless fashion, speeding through its many twists and turns with its fast cutting of film clips, archival footage, and re-enactments.

In all, this is a strange, incredible, almost unbelievable story, which would potentially make for a great movie.  Kim Jong-il, even before taking the reins of dictatorship from his father, was completely in charge of North Korea’s film industry. His obsession with films went well beyond being just a viewer. He owned a prodigiously vast collection which he assiduously studied, much of this acquired through a massive film piracy operation with a full staff copying film prints and videotapes sent from all over the world. He also published books on film theory and became consumed with the ambition to elevate North Korean films – mostly little more than wildly melodramatic propaganda – to a quality that would get them shown on the larger world stage, and even win awards and compete with Hollywood.

This quest eventually led him to Shin, arguably the greatest filmmaker South Korea has ever produced. It’s not that all of his films were masterpieces or even good – far from it. However, Shin was central to jump-starting the golden age of 1950’s and 1960’s South Korean postwar cinema, and a number of his films are indeed masterworks and enduring classics. Some of these include “A Flower in Hell” (1958), “A Romantic Papa” (1960), “Seong Chunhyang,” “Evergreen Tree,” “Mother and a Guest,” “Prince Yeonsan” (all 1961), “Deaf Sam-ryong” (1964), “Eunuch” (1968), and “Women of the Chosun Dynasty” (1969).  His company Shin Studios produced many other directors who made great works themselves, further elevating the overall quality of South Korean films in this period. Shin also brought many technical innovations to the country’s cinema, making their first ever films in Technicolor, Cinemascope, and sync sound. As a result, Shin almost single-handedly elevated South Korean cinema in the larger global industry, where they won awards and international acclaim.

Therefore, Kim Jong-il believed Shin Sang-ok was the ideal man to breathe some life into the practically moribund state of the North Korean film industry. Shin, however, by the mid-1970’s was in a far less enviable position than he had been in the previous decade as his country’s most successful director. While Shin was a great artist, he was an absolute disaster as a businessman, often on the brink of financial ruin even in the periods where he ruled the box office. Eventually, Shin Studios was no more, having been shut down by the government, his money problems and running afoul of the repressive regime of president Park Chung-hee causing him to be banned altogether from making films in South Korea.

Shin’s relationship with Choi was as much at a low ebb as his career was. By the late 1970’s, they were divorced, Choi finally having had enough of Shin’s financial instability and his frequent extramarital affairs, which resulted in Shin’s fathering two children out of wedlock with a younger actress.

Then, in 1978, Choi was lured to Hong Kong by someone posing as a producer offering her a role in a film to be shot there. Instead, she was met by North Korean agents who forcibly abducted her and took her by boat to North Korea, where she was greeted personally by Kim Jong-il. She was set up in lavish living quarters and invited to sumptuous soirees held by Kim, but despite these gilded trappings, Choi was essentially a prisoner of the regime.

Shin, after learning of his wife’s disappearance, went to Hong Kong to search for her, where he too was abducted. However, instead of the pampered treatment his wife enjoyed, Shin was instead sent to a detention center, where he suffered torture, attempted brainwashing, and solitary confinement. His ordeal was worsened by an unsuccessful escape attempt (illustrated in the documentary by clips of the film “The Great Escape,” which inspired Shin). Finally, after four years of imprisonment, and after Shin pledged allegiance to the regime, he was reunited with Choi and met Kim, who explained away Shin’s harrowing first years in North Korea as the result of a “misunderstanding.”

After their reunion, Shin and Choi were drafted into making films in North Korea, with Kim giving Shin unlimited budgets and resources. The two made seven films there from 1983 to 1985; the documentary claims that they made 17 films in this period, a number that is most likely inaccurate. The most notable of these films include “Love, Love, My Love” (1984), a musical based on the ancient Korean folktale “The Tale of Chunhyang,” which is sort of their version of “Romeo and Juliet”; Shin’s earlier film “Seong Chunhyang” was another retelling of this story. This film is notable for being North Korea’s first real romantic film, and included their cinema’s first onscreen kiss. In 1985 came “Salt,” a historical social-realist drama that earned Choi a best actress award at the Moscow Film Festival; and “Pulgasari,” their most expensive film, a Communist version of “Godzilla” that in later years became a cult hit in western countries.

As a result of the success of these and other films, Shin and Choi gained enough of Kim’s trust to the point that they were granted permission to travel abroad to represent the country at international film festivals and other events. In 1986, during a trip to Vienna, Shin and Choi were able to escape their bodyguards and make it to the U.S. embassy there, where they were granted asylum and eventually made their way to the U.S., and then by the early-1990’s were finally back home in South Korea, where Shin died in 2006. In the interim, Shin made a few more films before his death in both countries, including the “3 Ninjas” kids’ action film series – under the pseudonym Simon S. Sheen – in the U.S., and “Mayumi: Virgin Terrorist” (1990), based on the true story of the bombing of a Korean Air flight by North Koreans.

“The Lovers and the Despot” gives you the basic elements of this tale, but unfortunately, and disappointingly, represents a missed opportunity to do this story full justice, in all its fascinating details.  What’s most frustrating is the fact that, for a documentary about a film director, it is strangely uninterested in the actual films he made. Cannan and Adam weave in copious clips drawn from Shin’s oeuvre, but none of them are identified, and you will search in vain for most of the information about the significance of Shin’s films and career that I have provided in this review. This is even more inexplicable given that film critics and scholars are included among the interviewees. The filmmakers only give us the bare-bones, Cliffs’ Notes version of these events, seemingly much more engaged in playing up the more bizarre, sensational aspects of their narrative than in providing the edifying context that would have added much richness to their film.

Worse, the filmmakers frequently resort to the kinds of cheesy, clichéd stylistic tropes of TV documentaries and Dateline episodes, with reenactments and archival clips serving as redundant illustrations of their interviewees’ memories. The limitations of this approach are at their most glaringly obvious in the sequences depicting Shin and Choi’s escape from North Korea, where the filmmakers seemingly attempt their version of the concluding scenes of Ben Affleck’s “Argo.”

Fortunately, there are two elements that make “The Lovers and the Despot” worth seeing despite the film’s many flaws and the directors’ ill-advised choices. The first is Choi Eun-hee, the only one of this story’s main figures who is still alive. Now 89, Choi’s recollections are the most riveting and moving aspects of the film; even at her advanced age, Choi retains the grace and magnetism that made her such a luminous movie star.

Also, Cannan and Adam scored a major coup by gaining access to the audio recordings that Shin and Choi secretly made during their years in captivity. They were well aware that because of the strong anti-Communist sentiment that existed in South Korea, their story would be disbelieved by many who would think they had willingly defected to North Korea. So at great risk to themselves, they secretly recorded many of their phone conversations and meetings with Kim Jong-il to corroborate their testimony. The included excerpts of these recordings – accompanied by the unfortunately clichéd image of a spinning reel-to-reel tape – provide some of the more compelling moments of the film. These valuable documents allow us to hear Kim Jong-il’s voice, which very few people have heard up until now. Listening to the famously movie-mad dictator harshly criticize North Korean movies and articulate his grand ambitions to make his country’s films world-renowned exerts an almost surreal sense of fascination.

There is potentially a great film to be made from this material. “The Lovers and the Despot,” alas, isn’t that film. Perhaps the documentary approach isn’t the best way.  A dramatic feature would probably be a better way to go, preferably one by one of our current great South Korean directors, such as Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, or Kim Jee-woon. (The fine actor Song Kang-ho [“JSA,” “The Host,” “Snowpiercer”] would make a great Kim Jong-il.) Some actual drama performed by great actors, rather than documentary re-enactments, may be better able to provide the rich emotional truth that this amazing tale truly deserves.

“The Lovers and the Despot” is now playing in theaters and on demand. For more information, visit Magnolia Films’ website.

Note: For a fuller and much more detailed account of the abduction of Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, I highly recommend Paul Fischer’s entertaining and informative 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,” published by Flatiron Books.