Tempting as it may be to speak of The Lovers and the Despot in latter-day Orientalist terms reflecting the unfathomable enigmas of the mysterious East, this new documentary film does have a stranger-than-fiction quality that will confound any preconceptions a viewer might bring to the subject of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, a/k/a North Korea).
It tells the story of young, ambitious South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee, who fell in love in 1950s post-war Korea. In 1978, after reaching the top of Korean society with a string of successful films, Choi was kidnapped in Hong Kong by North Korean agents and taken to meet “Dear Leader” and General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Kim Jong Il. A few months later, as depicted in aptly grainy re-enactments in the film, while searching for Choi, Shin also was kidnapped and brought to North Korea.
As an accomplished actress, Choi adapted to her new environment with an impressive simulacrum of respect for Kim Jong Il, who doted on her with overweening generosity. Shin was a more difficult case: He resisted the constant pressure to adopt the specific Korean form of Marxist dogma, and even tried to escape. But eventually he, too, figured out that a pose of cooperation would make his life easier. Following his five years of imprisonment, the couple was reunited by the movie-obsessed Kim, who declared them his personal filmmakers.
Choi and Shin never abandoned their plan to escape, but they were constantly surrounded by “minders” and given little opportunity. In the meantime, Shin, who in capitalist South Korea had been bedeviled by cost overruns and debts to creditors, now had the vast state resources of the DPRK at his disposal. He set to work producing 17 feature films for Kim over a period of two and a half years, many of them groundbreaking in the history of North Korean cinema, and gained Kim’s trust in the process.
As a cineaste with a home theater installed in each of his residences around the country, the introverted Kim Jong Il fancied himself expert enough to release a book under his name called The Cinema and Directing (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang, 1987), in which he ironically states, “In analyzing and considering a production the director should not be too egotistical.” Perhaps he learned most of what he knew from Choi and Shin, who during their unanticipated sojourn in North Korea, surely learned how to bury their egos in the larger project of making movies – and stayin’ alive.
Kim Jong Il came to his love of movies honestly. He was the chosen successor to his father, Kim Il Sung, the more genial founder of the DPRK, who, like every leader of a new socialist society, saw the value in film as a great educational medium, a weapon in the class and anti-imperialist struggle. The son quotes him in his book: “Like the leading article of the Party paper, the cinema should have great appeal and move ahead of the realities. Thus, it should play a mobilizing role in each stage of the revolutionary struggle.”
Cinema in the DPRK had previously focused on discipline, order and sacrifice to the state, but Shin brought new dimensions to the North Korean screen. He introduced romance, adventure, spectacle and – what he lacked in the South – big budgets. Yet North Korea had few ways of getting its films shown outside the country, except perhaps at film festivals in the socialist lands, so much of this oeuvre is unknown. I would have liked to see more of it in the documentary, and more analysis of how it furthered the ideals of the nation, and perhaps how it didn’t.
Much of the story is re-enacted. Yet large portions of the film are terrifyingly absurd news clips of regimented – and one might say very well acted – life in North Korea; film documentation of Choi and Shin’s brief forays abroad to show off the glories of North Korean film – they were especially well received in Moscow; and excerpted portions of Shin’s films both under capitalism and under communism. By the time Adam and Cannan got to the project, Shin had died (in 2006); but they recorded extensive interviews with Choi, with the artists’ son and daughter, and with various other colleagues and critics who knew them and their work well.
Enter the cassette player
A starring role in the film is taken by a cassette player. At incalculable risk, certainly to their very lives, the captives often secretly recorded their intimate conversations with Kim Jong Il, who adored his productive little nightingales. These smuggled tapes, dripping with mutual flattery, reveal an unsuspected gullible side to the Dear Leader who only begged not to be betrayed. Knowing that the pair could have been apprehended at any time, a viewer can only see this unlikely tale as a wild Cold War thriller. The directors state:
“We had long been fascinated by the apparent Faustian pact that Shin entered into, and the conversations between Shin and Kim only deepened this aspect of the story for us. Was this a tale of a director’s ultimate temptation by the world’s most powerful producer or was Shin playing a masterful power game all along? Who was the master manipulator?”
Yes, in time Choi and Shin did escape (obviously, or there would be no movie) and made their way to Hollywood, where Shin worked on the Ninjas franchise for Disney. Kim Jong Il died in 2011 and was himself succeeded by his young son Kim Jong Un, he of the severe, style-setting haircut, who rules happily ever after in his “land of the morning calm,” where the names of Choi and Shin will be forever taboo.
My filmgoing friend and I had a discussion afterward: Is this film anti-communist? Is it designed to ratchet up sentiment against socialism? Is it a late blooming Cold War artifact in a world that needs less rather than more provocation? We believe the story is true, and it is certainly effectively presented. It seems like a work of honest filmmaking.
It probably would have helped the cause of North Korean socialism not to go around kidnapping major film stars.
The Lovers and the Despot premiered in the World Documentary Competition at the 2016 Sundance Festival. Magnolia Pictures releases the film on Sept. 23 in both L.A. and New York.
A Magnolia Pictures Release
Produced and directed by Rib Cannan and Ross Adam
In English, Korean and Japanese with English subtitles
Photo: Actress Choi Eun-hee (L) and director Shin Sang-ok.