The Lovers And The Despot

UK (2016) Dirs. Ross Adam & Robert Cannan

Although they may not realise it, the ruling dictatorship of the Kim family of North Korea is quite the laughing stock here in the free world and has been for quite a while, at least based on the little information we do have about them. Currently under the command of tubby tyrant Kim Jong-un, it is his father, the “Great Leader” Kim Jong-Il, that we are concerned about here.

This documentary details one of the more unusual film legends you’ll ever hear, featuring interviews with the people at the heart of this situation. We are privy to first person accounts of a shocking yet almost risible tale of a despot taking his adoration for film a little too far, doing little to abate the eccentric reputation of him and his family.

Shin Sang-ok was the biggest director in South Korea in the 50’s and 60’s making many films with his actress wife Choi Eun-hee. By the 1970’s Shin’s career was in decline due to strict new rules enforced by the South Korean government and in 1976 the couple divorced after Choi learned of Shin’s infidelity with a younger actress that produced two children.

Meanwhile, Kim Jong-Il was unhappy with the state of the North Korea’s film industry, demanding to know why the South was producing better films. Nothing to do with lack of freedom his family’s regime imposed on the nation we presume, but Kim was told about the South’s top director, Shin and his favourite muse Choi.

Kim pondered how to persuade the now separated couple to work in the North and give their film industry a boost so he told his staff to “get them” for him. Usually, money, gifts or promises of a creative autonomy are the accepted methods of gentle coercion but this is Kim Jong-Il we’re talking about.

In 1978 Choi went to Hong Kong on the pretence of starring in a new film, but the producer brokering the deal was in fact one of Kim’s agents. Choi was kidnapped and shipped off to Pyongyang. A few months later Shin was in Hong Kong, looking to resume his film career when he too was abducted, but while Choi was given the royal treatment by Kim himself, Shin’s attempts to escape earned him five years in a prison camp.

Granted this sounds absolutely far-fetched and many people in the South still to this day think that Shin (in particular) left of his own accord due to his frustrations relating to his film career. Choi was also under suspicion but she was less forthcoming with praising the North, as they were instructed to by Kim, whilst the evidence of her disappearance more resembled an impromptu kidnapping.

But Choi and Shin were smart cookies and Choi would smuggle a tape recorder in her handbag into meetings with Kim, the contents of which corroborated their kidnapping story. Since he was a shy and private person Kim seldom spoke in public so the release of these tapes gave the world outside of the North the first opportunity to hear his voice.

Kim’s peculiar behaviour was also revealed by Choi, again hitherto unknown to the rest of the world, suggested here to be the result of the sheltered upbringing imposed by his father Kim Il-Sung. Kim was aware of his short stature and used to the break the ice by comparing his size to that of a “midget’s turd” but this self-deprecating sense of humour seems to mask his true tyrannical leanings.

Scratchy photographs and archive footage present the North as quite a vibrant and colourful place but beyond this superficial propaganda, which Kim initially claimed he didn’t want for his films but naturally changed his mind, lays the totalitarian state of uniformed austerity we’ve come to associate with North Korea.

This makes for a fascinating and revealing documentary but this is only part of the story and for film fans, the most precious aspect of this is the actual output from Shin and Choi whilst in the North, most of which has been rarely seen on these shores. Even the most famous film, 1985’s Pulgasari, essentially a riff on Godzilla, is only afforded a few frames of screen time.

Because we only have the word of Choi – Shin died in 2006 – and news clippings of the period directors Ross Adam & Robert Cannan recreate the incidents using newly filmed footage doctored to resemble genuine cine film from the 70’s, sort of Crimewatch style but artier. Also sharing their recollections are Choi and Shin’s two children, associates of the couple and police officers involved in the case at the time.

With such an incredible tale to tell and with the unique evidence to bolster its credibility and validity, there is something missing from the presentation holding it back from being a truly compelling documentary. The lack of representation of Shin and Choi’s work and the gaps in the story, such as Choi and Shin not being reunited until five years after the kidnapping, or the investigation into the disappearance being practically ignored are key omissions.

It’s fair to say the South don’t come out of this too well either, with the above mentioned lack of action and continual suspicions of wilful defection levied against Choi and Shin by the authorities, along with the revelation of the film industry’s treatment of their most famous director, displaying tendencies not to dissimilar from those practised across the divide.

Admittedly sitting comfortably in the file marked “You Couldn’t Make It Up If You Tried” there is no question that The Lovers And The Despot should be seen whether you know the story behind it or not. If you are already familiar with it, you’d appreciate the fleshing out the main details but welcome a bit more depth, while neophytes should find this of great interest and a sufficient starting point to investigate it further.