'The Lovers and the Despot'
One of the strangest stories to ever slip out of the insanity of North Korea was the tale of how Kim Jong-il once kidnapped a director and actress from South Korea and forced them to make movies for the state. That’s the sort of thing you hear as a joke on ‘South Park’ and assume it’s some sort of wild exaggeration of the facts. But no, it really happened, and now a documentary has been made about the surreal slice of Korean history. You couldn’t make this stuff up, and if you did, it wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining.
The movie starts off in a fairly happy place of celebrity gossip. Directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan outline the romance of South Korean movie star Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok, who fell for each other while working on some of the most successful films in their industry. At the same time, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il became obsessed with creating movies in his country that could compete internationally at the same level. He was frustrated by how similar all of his national productions were, despite the fact that the North Korean film industry specialized in producing propaganda and lived in constant terror of saying anything that might displease the Eternal Leader. So, Kim did what any nutty dictator would do in his situation. He arranged for Choi and Shin to be kidnapped and forced to make movies under fear of death.
Choi Eun-hee outlines her ordeal firsthand, backed up by secret recordings she made of herself and the dictator that are incredibly disturbing. Sadly, Shin Sang-ok is no longer around to speak of his experiences (which included years spent in a brainwashing internment camp), but he too made his own recordings that appear throughout. It’s fairly frightening, with the quietly calm voice of Kim Jong-il telling his captors how wonderful their work is and how they need to make more inspiring stories, while Choi Eun-hee describes the realities of making 17 movies back-to-back while sleeping 2-3 hours per night to keep pace.
Adam and Cannan keep their documentary fairly straightforward, favoring interviews and archival footage to lay out the tale. This story certainly could have benefited from a more ambitious filmmaking approach, but the actual events are so bizarre, disturbing and darkly humorous that simply focusing on the facts makes for some riveting entertainment. Choi recalls how Kim Jong-il introduced himself as a “midget turd” to ingratiate himself with his new slave movie star and the ways in which everyone around her treated the situation as oddly normal in the midst of a repressive regime. The increasing demands placed upon the couple to appear at international film festivals and speak highly of the power of North Korea under constant watch from security guards is bizarrely terrifying, and their eventual escape is the stuff of a potboiler bestseller. It required the actress and director to move around with proud smiles on their faces at all times while secretly recording their captors and planning an escape route in the few brief moments alone they were allowed.
‘The Lovers and the Despot’ tells such a truly fascinating story that it overcomes its rather lackluster telling. The filmmakers don’t really need to use their craft to heighten tension because it’s all there in the words. The story has some gaps that would have been nice to explore. It’s never exactly clear what Kim Jong-il hoped to achieve from the endeavor (if he even knew) or how the partners/collaborators were able to create films that seemed to be so lovingly crafted under such insane pressures and circumstances.
Still, the fact that this movie exists at all is impressive and the story amazing enough that it should be sought out. If nothing else, you’ll never look at the second ‘3 Ninjas’ sequel again, since that was the lone American production Shin Sang-ok was able to direct after seeking refugee status in the U.S. Who would have ever guessed that direct-to-video threequel held such an intriguing role in film history?